3 out of 5
Directed by: Takashi Miike
Fan bases tend to follow pretty predictable routes. For example: I follow the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The fan base there tends to skew one of few ways: toward the insane, who can quote episode names and remember minutiae that no vagina would ever care about; toward the casual cool, where people remember loving the show as a kid and thus still claim to “love” the turtles because they can name all four; and then the assholes, like me, who still read the comics, own and watch all the shows and movies, but roll our eyes at the other two groups for either being too wacky or too lame.
I would say a similar breakdown exists for Miike fans. A lot of us jumped onto the same boat: Audition, Ichi the Killer. You still have your rabid fanbase, but these tend to be more Japanese-cinema buffs, perhaps not Miike-specific. You have your coolios, who are generally gore-jerks who loved Audition and stuck with Miike’s grosser flicks but spat on the works that went outside their genre. And me: a Miike follower. I want to watch anything Miike’s got, but admittedly, my experience in the realm of yakuza flicks and tokusatsu is limited. That rating up there states that this film is average, or slightly above. Which is valid, but ‘Zebraman’ is still a more unique experience than you’ll commonly get in film, and this is true for a large chunk of Miike’s work, regardless of the film as a whole being good or not.
Here’s your storyline gist: Sho Aikawa can’t seem to be taken seriously – in his job as a teacher of 3rd graders, as a father, as a husband. At night, he goes into a private room and wears a customized suit of a childhood tokusatsu superhero – Zebraman – and does jump kicks and poses in the mirror. It’s a valid form of therapy, and it ain’t hurtin’ anyone. …And then, characters from the old show start appearing in real life. And our lead starts discovering that he has the powers of Zebraman…
So in its own way, this is a story of self-discovery. There are mantras repeated about believing in yourself and anything is possible and etc. Good. Done. Except that this is all presented through the Miike eye. Which means we start at our issue from surreal and disparate parts – should I mention the alien invasion? the crab-infested government agent? – and slowly revolve around it, until we get a feel for the movie and are on board for the combination of silly, slapsticky hero antics and the contemplative, quiet growth of our lead. This is a common approach for Miike, but the years during which Zebraman was made were sort of a crossover point for the director, as the home video market in Japan began to fizzle and he moved on to larger budgeted projects.
Which means that, for all intents and purposes, Zebraman could have been a straight-forward hero origin story. But instead we get an inverted telling, really forcing all of the characters to the forefront in a way that doesn’t often happen on the American screen. It’s a more lighthearted Batman, if you will.
The usual positives apply to the overall production: the cinematography in the majority of Miike’s films has this really beautiful, crisp grittiness to it. The colors are never overly diffused, and the lighting always seems natural. And yet, you get the sense that shadows and palettes are purposefully placed and used (especially here, where the black and white (i.e. Zebra…) theme is played up a lot early on). He works with various d.p.’s, so I don’t know enough about the medium to say whether or not this is due to a consistent camera choice or whatever, but even operating on a larger scale things still look wonderful. I’m also never not fascinated by shot placement. Miike likes to capture scenes from one angle, and he’ll leave a character hanging off the side or a face chopped off, but then you’ll notice the camera swoop up or down to get someone in frame. Again, it all seems so purposeful. I see a similar style with Soderbergh in the U.S., but Soderbergh tends to favor wider shots and Miike always goes really close to things. Regardless, the real skill is how naturally this all seems to come off.
But enough of my research-less observations.
Zebraman is silly, and funny, and weird, and, at select times, powerful. It’s the type of micro-brew Miike excels at, which means it also has a small modicum of bathroom gags and complete surreality. However, it never quite succeeds at merging its different identities: that of an oddball, box-office-baiting entry that promotes Miike’s explorations of family, and honor; that of a tribute to classic tokusatus; and finally, a superhero movie. That beginning portion – grounded by its homemade Zebraman outfit, and Sho Aikawa’s humble performance – is some of Miike’s best, and best-looking work, appreciably linear, affecting, and often quite funny, but when it starts gathering its pieces for transitioning Zebraman to the “real” world, and becomes more about homage, it leaves a lot of its character plot lines dangling. This part has goofy charm, but not a lot of weight, giving way to the final sequence which doesn’t lean in to its cheesy effects enough, or, oppositely, make the appearance of the fully realized Zebraman or his enemies come across with much gravitas. This wandering focus ultimately hampers the flick from passing from good to great territory, but it’s still an entertaining view, and unique in its placement in Miike’s career in its attempts to straddle big screen and small screen story tendencies.