Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Zebraman (guest review by Aaron)

Thanks once again to my buddy Aaron of The Death Rattle for another killer guest review.

The city of Yokohama is in the midst of its biggest crimewave in history. Could it have anything to do with the sudden emergence of aliens who crash-landed in Japan back in the '70s and have been in hibernation ever since? Yes. That being said, Yokohama needs a hero, and you can take a wild guess who that would be.

The lead character in this Takashi Miike-directed character study is a timid schoolteacher named Shinichi Ichikawa (Sho Aikawa, who also starred in Miike's GOZU - the polar opposite of this somewhat endearing tale of an everyman-turned-superhero). To escape the harsh realities of his daily life, he obsesses over the titular Zebraman - a superhero from a failed television show in the '70s which was canceled after a couple of episodes. Shinichi even dresses up in his bedroom in a homemade Zebraman outfit and fantasizes about fighting bad guys.

As far as the aforementioned "harsh realities" that he deals with: his wife cheats on him, his teen daughter dates sleazy older men, and his son is bullied in school. So, instead of confronting his problems, he hides from them while dressing up like a superhero (a superhero modeled after a Zebra no less). In my book, this makes him a coward and a shitty father, but yet we're supposed to feel sorry for this loser? Whatever.

Shinichi meets a fellow Zebraman fan in the form of a physically handicapped student who just enrolled in the school he teaches at, putting to rest any speculations of a complete lack of Zebraman fans other than himself. Together, they drop various pieces of trivia on each other, but it's mostly Shinichi being enlightened by his student, who learned all about the obscure superhero through the internet. Hoping to impress the young boy, Shinichi sneaks out of his house one night in full Zebraman get-up and dodges people on the streets out of sheer embarrassment by hiding in alleyways, hoping to ultimately make it to the boy's house where he can proudly display his neat-o costume. Things take a turn when Shinichi finds himself in a back alley confrontation with a notorious pervert who wears a ridiculous crab mask. Suddenly, without any explanation, Shinichi discovers that he's gained superhuman fighting abilities and quickly disables the pervert.

Meanwhile, a bunch of suits are monitoring alien activity as part of some secret squirrel operation. The extraterrestrial mayhem eventually spills over into Shinichi's personal life, causing him to don the costume on a regular basis and assume the role of Zebraman in attempt to act as a defender of the city, or something like that. It's later revealed that the Zebraman television show actually tied into the "real-life" alien conspiracies and attempted to expose the various government cover-ups through each episode while disguising itself as a work of fiction. But, since the show was canceled, it goes without saying that its attempt at doing so was a failure, and thus the aliens were able to exist under the radar. There's also a sub-plot involving Shinichi and the mother of the crippled boy becoming romantically involved.

If someone were to stumble upon this film for whatever reason, oblivious to who the director was, they'd probably be utterly disappointed with it, for the simple fact that it's not your typical superhero film. On the other hand, anyone who seeks this out will more than likely find that it's everything they expected. This isn't one of Miike's more well-known films, nor is it a film that comes up when cinephiles talk about their favorite unconventional superhero movies, so I'm assuming that anyone outside of Japan would have to do a little bit of digging in order to learn about it. What ZEBRAMAN partly does is satirize superheroes and comic book characters, and in that respect it's OK at best. As far as the film's flaws, aside from the mostly sluggish pacing and the lengthy running time (nearly two hours), the lead character is a hard one to care about or sympathize with; not necessarily because he's a flawed person, but mostly because he's dull and kinda pathetic. The cast shines, however, despite them not being given much to work with.

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