Zebraman (2004)
Directed by Takashi Miike

Artistic & Entertainment Value: * * * ½

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Shin'ichi Ichikawa (Sho Aikawa) is an incompetent and discontented teacher whose son is being bullied, whose wife is having an affair, and whose daughter is disobedient and sexually active. The man's unhappiness is, however, somewhat relieved by his love of Zebraman, a superhero television show that aired when he was a child, before being cancelled after a mere seven episodes. Shin'ichi even goes so far as to make and wear his own version of Zebraman's costume. Naturally, when a new student, the wheelchair bound Asano (Naoki Yasukochi), transfers into his class and reveals that he too is an admirer of Zebraman, Shin'ichi befriends the boy. He even decides to show Asano his costume, but, before he can do so, Shin'ichi, while out one night wearing it, stumbles upon a man in a strange crab mask who is assaulting a woman. Shin'ichi comes to her aid and, amazingly, defeats his opponent. He soon realizes that he is, somehow, acquiring Zebraman's superpowers, but, at the same time, he also discovers that the events depicted in the television program were prophetic and that the Earth is currently being invaded by aliens from another planet, which only he can defeat.

Takashi Miike's Zebraman is a strange, charming, and enjoyable film.


Initially, the story the director relates, of a rather awkward man who lives a pathetic life and who has retreated into his dreams to find happiness, is suffused with a poignant, oddly enchanting sadness. As the narrative progresses, however, this sadness is slowly changed to hope. While watching how the hero meets the young Asano, and then the boy's kind widowed mother, and while seeing how the man actually becomes a crime fighting superhero who is, eventually, able to take on an army of invading space aliens, the viewer is sure to be caught up in the excitement of a gloomy life transformed into one alive with magic, danger, and bravery. As silly as the events depicted are, and as deliberately formulaic as the narrative is, the film still manages to arouse a real sense of hopeful joy. I will concede that Miike does leave certain details he has introduced unresolved, such as Shin'ichi's dysfunctional relationships with his family members (which are largely ignored by the film's second half) and his relationship with Asano's mother (which, though it initially seems to be developing into a romance, never actually does so), but these loose ends hardly spoil the film.

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Instead, Zebraman's sense of fun is generally complemented by the various elements the director has included in the movie. The film is, to a large degree, an homage to Japanese superhero television programs, and is alive with all the conventions of that genre, the clichés of which are tossed out one after another. The viewer thus gets to see the hero dressed in his animal-themed black and white costume, fighting various villains while spouting silly comments, managing, despite his newfound fame, to keep his identity a secret, and, inevitably, saving the world from an impossible, ridiculous danger. Such details are always presented in a tongue-in-cheek way, however. Shin'ichi does, after all, wear an outfit modelled on a zebra, and among his enemies are a man wearing a crab mask, aliens that look like translucent globs of hair gel, and possessed schoolchildren. All of this said, these superhero shows, though never taken seriously, are never mocked, either. While Zebraman is a parody, it is a lovingly made one. The result here is a series of adventures that are, at once, goofy and exciting. The movie is always a hoot.


Lastly, I should note that all of the actors acquit themselves well. Aikawa, in particular, is a pleasure to watch as a nervous milquetoast with a real if unusual love, one that nobody except Asano understands. The actor, moreover, successfully conveys the character's gradual transformation into a superhero. Shin'ichi does become a hero, but he remains an awkward, nervous man at the same time.


Though it is by no means Miike's best work, Zebraman is an enjoyable, sometimes enchanting movie.

Review by Keith Allen

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