Zebraman (2004) Movie Review

You probably won’t find a wackier film than Takashi Miike’s “Zebraman”, a Japanese movie about a loser who discovers that, by making a homemade superhero costume, he can literally transform into his TV idol (who was cancelled years ago) and fight alien invaders. Of course in this movie the invaders happen to be little jumping green goo that only goes up as far as your knees, and their only real power seems to be to possess humans and make them do bad things, but are nevertheless determined to rule the planet for some unexplained reason. Speaking of which, the word “unexplained” best describes “Zebraman”. Nothing in the film is explainable, and one suspects that’s all part of the film’s charm.

“Zebraman” stars Miike regular Sho Aikawa (“Ley Lines”, “Rainy Dog”, and a host of other Miike films) as Ichikawa, a teacher who is having more than a little trouble adjusting to mid-life. He’s disrespected at school, at home, and he’s such a loser that his son gets beaten up on a regular basis for it. But Ichikawa has a secret — at night he is making his own Zebraman costume, determined to escape from his pitiful existence by immersing himself into a world where he can be the hero. “Zebraman” the cancelled TV show is about a mild mannered junior high school teacher who, when the Earth is threatened, suits up in a black and white costume to save the planet. And hey, Ichikawa just happens to be a mild mannered junior high school teacher. Coincidence?

As luck — or perhaps more specifically, a completely random script by Kankuro Kudo — would have it, when Ichikawa makes his first foray into the mean streets, he learns that he does, in fact, have superpowers. After a battle with a pervert sporting a crab for a helmet, Zebraman starts to notice that random acts of violence are taking place all over his town, and the perpetrators seem to be possessed by thick green goo. With the help of an ill-tempered Government agent and a hot nurse who just happens to be the single parent of one of his students, Zebraman must battle the alien menace while trying not to look silly in his homemade costume. Needless to say, it’s easier said than done.

As you might have surmised, “Zebraman” is not your typical Takashi Miike film. It is surely rated PG, or perhaps PG-13 at the most. The violence is cartoonish, and except for some small appearances of blood, the only “blood” that gets spilt on a regular basis belongs to the aliens, and they show up as thick green gobs of goo. As a two-hour movie, “Zebraman” is most funny in the first half, as we follow Ichikawa as he tries to understand just what the heck is going on (with himself and that whole alien invasion thing), but the second half does seem to plod along until the inevitable conclusion. Some more judicious editing would have benefited the film tremendously, especially in the case of the labored second half.

The superhero action is, as you might expect, cartoonish in nature. Although it must be said that they are well done just enough to be exciting — with the exception of the finale, which, like much of the second half, simply takes too long to develop. The ending itself is just as nonsensical as the rest of the movie, involving Zebraman’s transformation into a flying zebra that blasts lasers at a giant version of the green goo alien. It’s all ridiculous, and you could deduct points from the film for it — but only if it wasn’t already obvious to you that the whole thing was silly on purpose. Perhaps the reaction of the ill-tempered Government agent says it all.

Although the script clearly marches to its own “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers”-esque drums, the movie did bring up some topics that struck me as more than just a little awkward. At one point Ichikawa basically becomes a de facto member of the hot nurse’s family, even acting as a pseudo father figure to her wheelchair-bound son. This wouldn’t be so uncomfortable if Ichikawa didn’t already have a family, including a neglected son who has been getting the tar beaten out of him on a regular basis. Not to mention his daughter, who seems to be prostituting herself in motel rooms. In fact, one of her johns is the crab head guy. Barely 30 minutes into the film, Ichikawa’s family conveniently disappears into the background for Ichikawa to bond with his “new” family.

It goes without saying that “Zebraman” isn’t to be taken seriously. The narrative is similar to a Superhero Origins Story, but is perhaps closer in style and sensibilities (if you want to attach such a thing to it) to those live-action costume superhero shows the Japanese excels at. There’s even a hilarious parody of these shows, as well as the current trend of Long Hair Ghost Stories sweeping across Asia, that involves a costumed superhero battling a generic ghost with long black hair covering her face (complete with random position of a familiar looking well) as a pedestrian strolls by in the background, completely oblivious to the fighting.

To no one’s surprise, things get even more inexplicable toward the end, when Zebraman’s costume somehow transforms into the real thing, and Ichikawa’s superpowers get a sudden (and dare I say it again? — unexplainable) boost. No effort should be made to try to understand “Zebraman’s” storylines. It’s all over the place, and to call it semi-coherent would be too generous. It’s also very clich’d, which may well be the intention. It is later discovered that the aliens, so unsure of what their purposes are, are actually using old scripts of the Zebraman TV show to plot their invasion plan. These guys are clueless.

The task with a movie like “Zebraman” is to just go with it. If you can do that, then this is a pretty funny film with some noticeable lag in the second half. But overall, it’s an entertaining and oftentimes funny campy superhero movie, and approached as such, it’s a sure winner. Who knew Miike, the master of Japanese Shock cinema, could pull off a movie like this? Color me impressed.

Takashi Miike (director) / Kankuro Kudo (screenplay)
CAST: Sho Aikawa …. Ichikawa/Zebraman

Buy Zebraman on DVD