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Japan (2004), 115 minutes
Starring: Shin'ichi Ichikawa, Kumiko Aso, Akira Emoto, Arata Furuta, Yoshihiko Hakamada, Yui Ichikawa
Reviewer: Jeremy Silman
Genre: Action, Fantasy
Rating: 5

Takashi Miike is a genius that seems to crack out two to three movies every year. One would think that such a non-stop creative explosion would result in stale – or simply bad – films. But this just isn’t the case. Instead, he keeps working, leaps from one genre to another, and almost always walks away with a finished product that leaves the audience drooling in wonder, shock, and awe. While his film Audition is a horror tour de force, many of his other movies shouldn’t be successful on any level. This thought often enters my mind when I view Miike films like Dead or Alive or N-Girls vs. Vampire (a bad film that is, somehow, still remarkably enjoyable!), yet when the last visual outrage fades from the screen and the credits start to roll, I’m left muttering, “Genius… sheer genius!”

Leaving behind his love of yakuza themes, and skipping away from his recent penchant for horror, Miike flexes his movie-making muscle on Zebraman. Here we see strange alien green glop taking over the planet, while a mild mannered schoolteacher hides his passion for the comic book character Zebraman from his friends and family. Instead, he ignores the chaos that appears to be spreading over Japan, hides from his ever-increasing schism with his wife, daughter and son, and instead sews together a Zebraman costume, puts it on, and pretends (in the privacy of his bedroom) that he is the fictional hero from a long-cancelled TV show.

Here Miike’s talent is showcased: Very little of what goes on makes sense, silliness prevails, and logic is thrown out the window. But, by mixing in the pathos of “Joe-Average,” great moments of comedy, deep and (at times) tender interpersonal relationships, and fun special effects, he turns us all into fans as the nerdy teacher rises above self doubt and past failure to become (literally and emotionally) a true superhero.

One thing I love about Japanese film is that heroes are often shown to be real people with real life experiences and real problems. Where American heroes are usually perfect physical specimens with brilliant white teeth and paint-by-the-numbers morals suitable for gun-toting, Christian Fundamentalist America, a Japanese hero might have a potbelly, and might have to create a personal moral code that adheres to his/her own private sense of right and wrong.

Incredibly (since this film is a spoof), Miike forces his cartoonish, physically unattractive hero to explore serious issues. Our mild mannered main character (Ichikawa) faces a disinterested wife, a young son that has little pride in his father, and a daughter that is prostituting herself in sleazy motel rooms – even having sex with a crab headed villain that he has to deal with later in the film. Ichikawa’s self-hatred and lack of self-esteem is mirrored by his family’s descent into oblivion. Salvation (his and his real family’s) comes when he finds the courage to show his true self, the discovery of his true path, and the acquisition of a new family – a single nurse and her wheelchair bound son.

As this odd mix of action, comedy, and introspective drama unfolds, we realize that Zebraman is both fun and social metaphor – an interactive experience that allows the viewer to see as much or as little as he/she wishes to grasp.