Director: Takashi Miike
Writer: Kankuro Kudo
Cast: Sho Aikawa, Kyoka Suzuki, Teruyoshi Uchimura, Yui Ichikawa, Koen Kondo, Naoki Yasukochi, Makiko Watanabe, Keisuke Mishima, Yu Tokui, Yoji Tanaka
Running Time: 115 min.
With the massive success of 2010’s 13 Assassins it’s easy to forget that, oh, just a year ago director Takashi Miike was more well known for his typically surreal cinema efforts, which have included such feats as a woman shooting darts from her, uh, private regions and people regularly being cut in half. 2004’s Zebraman is one of those zanier flicks, and though it tones down the sex and violence it ramps the weird factor way up. Despite the titular character’s goofy, Super Sentai-inspired costume, don’t mistake this for a kid’s movie.
The heart and soul of Zebraman is actor Sho Aikawa, who previously worked with Miike on the Dead or Alive films. Aikawa plays a character who is a complete failure at life and has very little to recommend about him as a human being, and yet because of Aikawa’s performance you can’t help but root for the guy. Aikawa is a 3rd grade teacher who puts the minimal amount of effort required into his job; his son gets beat up at school because all the other kids think his dad is a loser; his wife is cheating on him; and his daughter sleeps around with middle-aged men she meets on the internet.
The only reprieve from his dreary life comes from his nights spent dressed up as Zebraman, a TV superhero he recalls from his childhood. Yet even this act is clouded with shame: Aikawa actively worries that someone from his job will see him dressed in the black-and-white costume and fire him on the spot. Eventually, Zebraman learns that he might actually have a knack for this superhero thing. When some CG aliens show up looking to make Japan ground zero for their invasion, only Zebraman can stop them – but first he’s got to believe that he can do it, which might take some convincing.
If there’s anything that mars Zebraman as a film, it’s the pacing. The film is very leisurely paced, which means it never manages to build up momentum. About an hour in, some apocalyptic-type events transpire and I was certain that the film was leading into the climactic encounter between Zebraman and the aliens – and then there was another hour to go. 115 minutes is probably a tad too long for what basically amounts to a superhero farce. Still, it gives Miike time to develop the characters and the world of the film.
I’ll also admit it was more fun to watch Zebraman take on your garden variety robbers, serial killers, and would-be rapists with his “Zebra Double Kick” and “Zebra Screw Punch,” than it was to see him fight aliens. The problem with the end battle between Zebraman and the aliens is that the extraterrestrials are low-rent, low-budget (for 2004!) CG blobs that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Robin Williams comedy Flubber. So the ending wasn’t as entertaining as it could have been.
Regardless, there’s a lot to recommend about Zebraman. It’s a story about a pretty pathetic guy – the kind of person you might know at your job or school – who finds the strength inside himself to become a hero. Along the way, there are a lot of pratfalls and bathroom jokes, including a guy who washes his crotch with alien-infected water at a sauna. But I’ll admit that part made me laugh, among other scenes, and Miike brings his usual flair for action and absurd scenarios. If you enjoy superhero comedies, Power Ranger parodies, actor Sho Aikawa, or just weird Japanese movies in general, Zebraman fits the bill nicely.
HKFanatic’s Rating: 7/10