For those who think Takashi Miike can only make films with necrophilia, amputations or sadism, you're wrong. Miike has certainly made a name for himself by going to extremes, but occasionally, with varied success, he leave the gore on the side. Films such as the folkloric The Bird People in China (1998), the period melodrama Sabu (2002), the teen sci-fi romp Andromedia (1998) and the most recent kaiju-inspired The Great Yokai War (2005) are not without the unmistakable Miike touch, but lack the excess of bodily fluids. Zebraman falls right into the category of being far from ordinary, but oddly heart-warming and charming. It was also, up until last year's Crows Zero, Miike's biggest commercial success theatrically in Japan.
Ichikawa is a gentle but uninspiring 3rd grade teacher who has been abandon by his own family in various ways: his wife comes home late with no explanation, his daughter defies his authority and goes out late with no explanation, and his son simmers with resentment from being bullied at schoool. Ichikawa retreats into his henshin superhero dreams, specifically about Zebraman, a one series dud that aired when he was a kid. Privately dressing up as Zebraman in a handmade costume, Ichikawa practices various unconvincing moves. When he catches Asono, a wheelchair-bound transfer student, drawing Zebraman, the two strike up a friendship of otaku proportions that lends Ichikawa a certain amount of confidence he never had before. Meanwhile, alien presences are lurking. As one might expect, it is up to Ichikawa as Zebraman to save the world.
There are many things I adore about Zebraman. The off-beat scenarios throughout the movie makes me smile: a superhero movie that is far from super-heroic. Zebraman's first big challenge is with a rapist wearing an absurd crap head mask who also happens to be possessed by an alien. Likewise, the aliens threatening life as we know it are some sort of inane combination of ghouls from Ghostbusters and the typical big-headed alien caricature from Roswell: a brilliantly snarky jab at any energy and resources spent on imagining such things. Absurd plot twists mixed amongst the most conventional of narrative structure gives Zebraman life beyond what it should have. But more than anything, Zebraman is about being whatever you want to be: a public or private superhero.
God loves a goofy film that can also have political subtext. Displaying subtle but appropriate awareness, Miike understands the fine line that Japan walks between non-militarization and US diplomacy. The agents inspecting the alien infiltration have hilariously learned about their existence from the US, pointing out that Japan has actually bought into the notion that the US knows more about what is going on in Japan than Japan does. In the end, the Japanese Self-Defence force is willing to give Bush their regards, but tell hi, to take his weapons where the sun doesn't shine. The analogy is over-the-top and non-sensical but absolutely straight to the point.
I have inevitably built Zebraman up into a movie that it is not. it is not a great film by any means, but it has way more to give than it is given credit for. Objective fans will have no problem finding something to enjoy, and I would hesitate to guess that those uninitiated to Miike might actually find this movie fun. Zebraman is an everyman that inevitably some will identify with and others will not. Personally, I would take Zebraman over Ironman any day. It's cool not to be cool.