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I suppose I should start by saying that “Zebraman” was one of my first post-”Audition” Takashi Miike experiences, and to this day remains one of my absolute favorites. In addition to the all lunacy, the outrageousness, and the admittedly low-budget thrills, the film carries with it a certain amount of charm and heart, two elements that are rarely present in the director’s body of work. It’s a very simple, very childlike motion picture, and the sense of nostalgia that it evokes is impressive given the somewhat garish nature of the material. That having been said, I honestly didn’t think the movie needed a sequel. The idea of another installment was certainly enticing, but I remained extremely skeptical of which direction Miike and company would ultimately take their characters.
“Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City” is a different beast altogether. The set pieces are bigger, the villains are meaner, the action is grittier — it’s everything a sequel should be, and then some. The story itself is very epic in scope, and while it’s nowhere near as uplifting and heartwarming as the original, what it lacks in emotional depth it certainly makes up for in style and spectacle. You might say it’s the franchise’s version of “The Dark Knight”, and should please those of you who, like me, have been more than a little concerned as to our zebra-striped hero’s cinematic fate. Assuming, of course, that you’re not anticipating more of the same. Otherwise, you might be more than a little irritated with this particular adventure. Miike isn’t content to simply rehash old material.
Veteran Japanese actor and frequent Takashi Miike collaborator Shô Aikawa reprises his role as nerdy schoolteacher Shiinichi Ichikawa, a man who inadvertently gains the superhuman powers associated with his favorite television hero Zebraman. After saving the entire planet from a particularly gooey alien invasion, poor Mr. Ichikawa is thrust into the public spotlight, a position that eventually separates him from his family and friends. Several decades after the events portrayed in the first film, our hero is a shadow of his former self, wandering the Orwellian streets of Zebra City with absolutely no recollection of who he is or what he’s accomplished. What’s more, he has absolutely no idea what that heavily-armed group of black-and-white soldiers attempted to gun him down in cold blood. Needless to say, things aren’t going very well for Shiinichi.
However, with the assistance of former student Asano and a washed-up television star, Ichikawa will rediscover the plethora of otherworldly powers that are bubbling just below the surface. Which is a good thing, really, since the evil mayor of Zebra City and his Lady Gaga-inspired daughter are hellbent on locating an alien entity lurking somewhere on the outskirts of this dystopian metropolis, a being that will give them powers beyond their wildest dreams. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait nearly an hour for Zebraman himself to make an appearance, as a large section of the flick is devoted to our hero’s struggle with amnesia and his quest to reconnect with his storied past. In other words, if you’re looking for wall-to-wall action peppered with Miike’s patented brand of outlandishness, then prepare yourself for a mountain of unmitigated disappointment.
My only major concern with “Zebraman 2″ is that the series no longer feels like an homage. The first installment was a love song to comic books, superheroes, and Ultraman-style television programs, which may explain the sense of nostalgia I feel whenever I pop it in. The sequel, on the other hand, feels like the real thing; instead of merely paying tribute the genre, “Zebraman 2″ is the genuine article. Of course, the film is that much stronger for it. The tone is much more serious and a lot darker than the original, giving Miike the opportunity to take the series in a completely different direction. That having been said, there are still a few bizarre moments sprinkled throughout the course of the story, including a curious “Stop AIDS!” segment and a finale that suggests the next installment may take place somewhere within the far reaches of outer space. We should only be so lucky.
If you can see past the silly pop songs, the miles of exposition, and the absence of the titular hero for the first hour or so, then you may discover that “Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City” has plenty to offer. It’s bigger, badder, and a lot slicker than the first installment of this incredibly entertaining series, and delivers plenty of over-the-top action in the way that only Takashi Miike can deliver. And while I feel the need to slight the picture a bit for burying its heart beneath several thick layers of computer-generated tomfoolery, I can’t fault the filmmakers for wanting to take approach the story in a more serious manner. This feels like the next logical step, especially when you stop to consider how much the superhero genre has changed since “Zebraman” made its debut back in 2004. Shô Aikawa has never been better, and I’d love to see him revisit this universe in the not-too-distant future. Next time: More Zebraman, please.
Takashi Miike (director) / Kankurô Kudô (screenplay)
CAST: Shô Aikawa … Zebraman
Riisa Naka … Zebra Queen
Tsuyoshi Abe … Niimi
Masahiro Inoue … Shimpei