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Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Zebraman (2004)

Everything's gone weird in the Yachiyo ward in 2010. While the locals apparently don't notice, the government knows that there are non humans everywhere, strange electromagnetic waves keep cropping up and what appear to be bearded seals are packing the river heading for the sea, just like the jellyfish in Bright Future. On a more down to earth level crime is rampant but quintessentially Japanese: a man robs a convenience store dressed in a crab mask and wielding a couple of pairs of scissors, for instance. Two special ops agents from the Defence Agency, Oikawa and Segawa are sent to find out what's going on, posing as a gay couple to avoid suspicion.

However these aren't our central characters: that honour falls to mild mannered Shinichi Ichikawa, who is a complete failure as a husband, father and teacher. Beyond not being able to say the right thing at the right time, he has a knack of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. His wife is cheating on him, his daughter has discovered her sexuality and his son gets picked on because of him. The first connection he really has with anyone is with a young boy called Shinpei Asano who transfers into his class, a boy who lost the ability to stand a couple of years earlier after discovering his father a victim of suicide. The thing is that Shinpei is a Zebraman fan.

Because Shinichi is so useless at everything else, he has an active fantasy life, acting out fantasies spawned from watching too much Japanese TV. He even dresses up as his favourite character, Zebraman, thus the obvious connection to Shinpei. Zebraman was a short lived character in a 1978 show that was cancelled after seven episodes and never repeated, making Shinpei an unlikely fan and a rare one. Maybe though it's this connection that gradually turns Shinichi into Zebraman, not the man in a suit but the real superhero who appears in 2010 to save the world from crustacean headed invaders. Suddenly his moves actually work.

Takashi Miike is a director as fascinating as he is prolific. He's all too often either dismissed or worshipped as a director of ultraviolent horror movies, known mostly for cult titles like Audition and Ichi the Killer. However his work runs far beyond just these films or their genre. His most frequent subject is the yakuza, with many crime movies under his belt, and he often delves into the bizarre with quite a few surreal, quirky or offbeat pictures to his name too. The last I saw was his deliriously stylish Sukiyaki Western Django, but The Great Yokai War and The Happiness of the Katakuris spring to mind as well. The latter, as the only Miike that hasn't impressed me thus far, is getting higher and higher on my need to see again list. I have a feeling that next time I may get it.

This is a strange film, at heart a story about the power of belief and a man finding himself, but it's all wrapped up in a freaky tale of alien invasion that suggests that the truth isn't just out there, it was hidden in a Japanese superhero TV show in 1978. Then again, I guess that's no weirder than the Men in Black concept that everything the Weekly World News is true, because they know full well that only those in the know will believe a word of it. It's less weird than Save the Green Planet! which would work well following this as the second half of a double bill, but then there aren't many things that are quite that weird.

Sho Aikawa is a great man to lead the cast, being completely believable in the unenviable task of being a failure who succeeds. He's a Miike regular, having appeared in no less than twelve of his films, but I've only seen one before this: Dead or Alive: Final. If this is anything to go by though, he's going to be great fun to watch in the rest. Zebraman's moves are mostly right out of Japanese superhero shows but he postures around like Adam West's Batman. He also gets beaten up more than any superhero I've ever seen but then this is a Miike film, right?

Backing him up are an able cast of people I've never seen before. I can't tell who played Shinpei Asano though he does a good job, but his mother is played by Kyoka Suzuki, who is delightful in a role that mostly has her play a simple mother of a crippled child. There's more depth there than that though and she gets a great dream sequence second role as Zebranurse. The special ops agents are Atsuro Watabe and Koen Kondo, though they get far less time than you'd expect. Watabe gets a few cool moments but he's generally overshadowed in those scenes by others and by the sheer inspired lunacy of the thing. Aided by effects that, like The Great Yokai War, run the gamut from pretty poor to excellent, it's a heck of a ride and it kicks the living crap out of Spider-Man 3. What was that budget again, Sam?

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