Directed by Takashi Miike, 2004, 115 minutes, starring Sho Aikawa, Kyoko Suzuki, Teruyoshi Uchimura, Yui Ichikawa, and Koen Kondo.
Attempting to ascertain what makes a "good Miike film" is akin to finding consistency in Miike's methods of filmmaking. He is as difficult to categorize as he is to catalogue - there is simply too much to Miike to narrow him or his work into any pigeonhole. And yet, time and again, reviewers come to bat for the "quintessential Miike film" or the "type of Miikesploitation we've become so used to". Bollocks I say. I've both loved and hated Miike films. I've gone from being genuinely excited to overwhelmingly disgusted by his ideas and output. But by God, if there's one thing Takashi Miike is not, it's easily categorised.
Zebraman is Miike's one hundred-millionth film, and as is the case with most of his releases, it's something we haven't seen before. A superhero film (sort of) that's aimed at children (I guess), it treads a much finer line than any other Miike outing (despite its comparisons to his other "family-oriented" outing, The Great Yokai War) in fulfilling his dream to create a film that is all-inclusive of superhero/comedy/drama/crime/schlock horror fans. Somewhere between pandering to comic book nerds and looking satirically at the complex web of alter-egos and secret personas that all of us put on, Zebraman is a cool film with a lot going for it - a good script with none of the hokeyness of Yokai, good "dark" cinematography without all the depression of Ichi The Kiler's settings, and a damned good cast all make for what is probably one of the most surprising cinematic experiences I've had with Mr. Miike. Which is why, when it comes to a film such as Zebraman, it is best to allow the work to stand on its own, away from the director himself. This is something new from Miike, and Japan - a good campy faux-superhero film that is actually the best family film I've seen in ages.
In the Yachiyo Ward of Yokohoma, Shin'ichi Ichikawa (Sho Aikawa, who incidentally got his start in superhero fiction as a writer for the Ultraman series circa 1990) is an educator with more than his fair share of problems. He's an unrespected elementary school teacher with surprisingly unsympathetic students, and is the source of their frustration and belittling (when he announces that he will be their permanent instructor, after a period I suspect serving as a mere subsititute, the class groans in agony to the unison shrill "Not you!"). Similarly, his son is the constantly bullied, often it seems for merely being his father's son, while his daughter (Yui Ichikawa) has found an older, middle-aged man to "sell herself" to. And the greatest insult of his small, troubled existance? His wife, it seems, no longer loves him, and according to the woe-is-me tale woven by the daughter to her "older gentleman", she is now having an affair.
Set in 2010, Zebraman opens with what must be described as a rather mediocre view of Japanese life. Ichikawa works at an ordinary school, where he is neither respected by his students, nor by his peers. He doodles during class readings; nay, he barely even has an interest in the young minds in front of him. He's lost his love for teaching (though we may never know if he had it to begin with), until a young student comes along named Asano (Naoki Yasukôtchi). With her son paralyzed from the waist-down, Asano's mother begs Ichikawa upon their first encounter: "treat him like any other student." And so he does, for all of five minutes, until he discovers that Asano shares his own secret passion - Zebraman, a superhero television show that aired for a mere seven episodes thirty-four years prior. Following Asano home, the young student shows him websites where he watches old episodes, and all the ramblings of the various groups and clubs that enjoy Zebraman and his adventures so many years later.
Meanwhile, in the general vicinity of the school where Ichikawa teaches, a rash of strange crimes and murders has been occuring. And just recently, a man attacked a woman in a back alley wearing... a crab mask. It sounds suspicious to to Ichikawa, but more than that, it sounds familiar. Do these crimes have anything to do with a television show that was cancelled after half a dozen episodes three and a half decades ago? Is the school at fault for being the lightning rod for these events? Will Ichikawa put his haphazard sewing skills to good use? Obviously I wouldn't ask such broad, sweeping questions if I'd intended on throwing out answers. Mr. Miike, it seems, feels the same.
Zebraman is, in a word, perfect. Don't get me wrong, it's not brilliant by any means; hell, it's not even that plain old smart. But it's a film that works on almost all levels, and it works well. It is a better children's film than Yokai, and its narrative is as digestible as they come. If there were a definition to be made of a good Miike film, this would be it. What Takashi Miike has done is seamlessly blend comedy, light drama, and excessive theatrics all within the realms of a fantasy film that allows you to easily suspend your disbelief. And he does so with class. This is the truest family-friendly story - no cursing, no sex, no nudity, no realistic violence, no blasphemy, no taboos, no nothing for you perverts to get off on. It is a wholesome film with a good (but not preachy) message about believing in the things you want to achieve for the most, and following through on those dreams at all costs - anything goes. And despite some seriously lacking CGI, it is the ultimate (if unexplained) good versus evil story shrunk down to kiddie form.
The family, always a treasure in a film like this, is instead like a more well-adjusted version of nuclear disintegration as presented in Visitor Q, and off the bat the troubles mount up in typical Q fashion. But Miike avoids the obvious; even an affair between Ichikawa and Asano's mother, which even had this reviewer crossing his fingers for, was avoided to keep the film on track. The troubles of this family are shown, but subtly - the wife walking with her new companion, the girl laying (fully clothed) in bed with her wealthy suitor, and the son's scars from his bullies. The acting is wonderful in Zebraman, so I'm going to repeat it for those who might think otherwise - the acting is wonderful in Zebraman. The cast of characters are given just the right amount of screen time per their level of dramatic or comedic skills, meaning no mediocrity overkill. And Sho Aikawa? Possibly Miike's greatest asset at this point. Having been in other films by the director (including the Dead or Alive trilogy and Gozu), to see this sort of versatility will always be sort of surprising to me as a Westerner - he's an actor who can do more than one type of role, and do it well. No doubt, he's good at a lot of things, but Aikawa is great in Zebraman. In fact, most of the actors were. And even some of the green goo things being played off as aliens.
I don't want to seem too hyped on Zebraman, because yeah, some things weren't as well-done as others. The computer graphics, for one, are crap in some if not most places, especially when it comes to the "space invaders". And the last thirty of minutes of the film... take... forever... to get... anywhere. And if you're looking for a film that presents a lot of storylines but only ties up a few, this is your number one jam in waiting. Do you want a false ending or three? 'Cause this is the place for those as well. But otherwise, Zebraman is a beautiful film (although a bit dark in places) that has good pacing for its first two-thirds and solid scripting all the way through (even without a thought-out resolution, the one we get works just fine for this caliber of film). It's emotional without being mushy, it's adventurous without equating itself to a live-action anime, and although it practically spoon-feeds its narrative, frankly I just don't care - Zebraman is a good movie with a good story and a great cast, and that doesn't come along every day.
Of important note are two things: that Takashi Miike finally understands satire (as evidenced in the "vintage" Zebraman tapes, as well as the nods to Ring, Kairo and Uzumaki), and that Takashi Miike has mastered comedy in his own right. This is a funny film, and Sho Aikawa is a great physical comedian. It's interesting to see a film with humor aimed at children, and not see a sight joke or hear a fart gag in the process. There's even a gay joke that manages to be tasteful and funny, and greatly appealed to this reviewer's sensibilities. Takashi Miike has managed to make a different sort of film without being either vulgar or exploitive on any level, and in turn has produced what may be his most accessible work yet - a classy film the entire family can enjoy.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Violence: 4/10 (and cartoony as all get out)
Gross-outs: 2/10 (green CG goo is not gross)
Sex: none. That's right. None. No nudity. No sex. No curse words even. Stop the presses.
Humour: tons/10 (and there is a Ringu spoof hidden somewhere within that is brilliant!)
False Endings: Monsieur Miike, you are a trickster!
Obscurity references: "Zebraman, a superhero of a TV program that ended after seven episodes 34 years ago." Um, Yeah.
Films in a Similar Style: Casshern, in a superhero style. Full Metal Yakuza, for a more shaky runthrough of similar themes. Power Rangers, just for the hell of it.
*** Recommended ***
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Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2006
Snowblood Apple Filmographies
The official site that held the teasers and the trailer was at http://www.zebraman.jp/, but my gut is telling me it will be down permanently. You can find the trailer though at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFncAjYDRss
http://www.beyondhollywood.com/reviews/zebraman.htm – accurate, well-worded review
http://www.sancho-asia.com/miike/zebraman.php - The Sancho Does Asia review, with the movie promo flyers too [French only]
http://www.plastichandgun.com/filmreviews/zebraman.html – to-the-point review that covers its subject well in very few words
http://www.cinemaeye.com/index/reviews/rev_more/1004 – review that's interesting, with an interesting last line
http://www.celluloiddreams.co.uk/zebraman.html – an intelligently-constructed opposing review that I can respect point-for-point