Takashi Miike--the acclaimed director of such nail-biting horror films such as “Audition” and “Gozu”, such gritty yakuza-themed films such as “Dead or Alive” and “Fudoh”, the cult-hit “Ichi the Killer”, his contribution was banned from the Showtime “Masters of Horror” series for “Imprint”--one wouldn’t be hard-pressed to assume that Miike is only capable of such macabre and violent films. Nope, Takashi Miike is actually better known in his native land for his “family-friendly” films such as “the Great Yokai War”, and this film, “ZEBRAMAN”. This film is Takashi Miike’s comedic parody of the superhero genre.
Shinichi Ichikawa (Sho Aikawa) is a grade school teacher. He is a humble man, with some major family issues--his wife is cheating on him, his daughter Midori (Yui Ichikawa) doesn’t respect him and his youngest son is being bullied at school just because he is his son. Back in 1978, he is also obsessed with a TV show called Zebraman which is set in 2010, now when that year rolls around, Shinichi attempts to escape his issues by fashioning himself a “zebra man” costume and begins to play the character at night. What began as escapism, soon becomes a bizarre reality as a monster from the original show actually appears. Shinichi finally realizes that his beloved TV show wasn’t fantasy but a prophecy foretold. And now, dressing up as Zebraman, he elects himself its fulfillment. Now, he has little choice but to take the role seriously as hostile aliens does surface and he must protect the people of Japan!
The film’s strength lies in its energetic direction. The film may seem rather comical and silly in many ways but the “cheesiness” and goofy feel is a main part of its premise. Appreciating the occasional cheesy sequences is just a matter of being in the correct state of mind. The premise of the movie is rather simple but the energy and pacing of the film’s structure does keep it from becoming too predictable, it maintains an interesting quality throughout. The film also has a theme--as with believing in yourself and Miike’s doesn’t hold back on some social and political commentary, very subtle and not entirely obvious until the final act. While it doesn’t deliver everything with a straight face, the film’s main message is self-reliance and it does somewhat condemn the use of nuclear arms.
The film’s action is rather “cartoonish” and comical; it is meant to be this way. The costumes looked very inspired by Japanese serials such as “Ultraman” and the action contains some martial arts also reminiscent of the series. The villains are your usual men in rubber suits and they move as they would in such TV series. There is some CGI images and the aliens have that “Flubber”-like look but they do look menacing in a very cartoon-like manner. The film is decently acted and I really had fun watching its odd touches of humor.
Honestly, the film is the type of experience not to be taken seriously and one may miss the importance of exactly what it is trying to say--”Believe in yourself and your dreams will come true” is the film’s powerful message. Miike is telling his audience that self reliance and hard work is always the answer and dependence on an outside force may prove to be disastrous. After all, Japan is a country that had suffered an atomic attack, but it managed to still become an economic powerhouse after the 2nd world war. Sakinichi’s friendship with a young boy on a wheelchair named Shinpei Asano (Naoki Yasukochi) is the strong catalyst for his resolve. His mother, a hard working single mother (played by beauteous Kyoka Suzuki) also adds a lot of needed humanity as Shinichi imagines her as “Zebra-Nurse”. (What the heck?) Oh, yes, as with most Japanese films, I’ve seen in this genre, it does have a good number of scenes which made me say: “What the Heck?!”
All in all, this may not be one of my favorites from Takashi Miike, but I do appreciate what it was trying to do. The film does leave certain aspects of its plot undefined as to Shinichi’s newly acquired powers, but I guess the answers are there if you look hard enough (the manga it inspired never had Zebraman gain any real powers). Some elements were also underdeveloped (you barely see his wife and daughter) and the final act of the film is definitely those very used to the “Ultraman” style and it is NOT for everybody. Still, Miike’s energetic direction kept the film grounded and the film is never boring. “Zebraman” isn’t one of Miike’s best but it does stand well as a testament to this director’s versatility.
Recommended! To fans of Japanese cinema [3 ½ Stars]