Ichikawa is a dysfunctional elementary school teacher who is not respected at home or at work. His family life is in shambles. His son, who obviously resents him, is beaten up repeatedly at school and teased by his fellow students because of his weird father. His wife is having an affair, and his daughter may or may not be a teenage prostitute. Even his fellow teachers view him as an oddball, as he fails to pay attention at faculty meetings or even to students during class. Most of the derision towards him is not without cause, however, as Ichikawa has an unhealthy obsession with Zebraman, a superhero TV show from the 1970s that was cancelled after only seven episodes. Ichikawa spends all his time drawing, dreaming, and dressing up as Zebraman, which is his only escape from his miserable life. Things change when Asano, a boy confined to a wheelchair, transfers to Ichikawa’s class. Asano also has a love of Zebraman, and the two quickly form an unlikely bond. At the same time, the local crime rate goes through the roof as a man with a lobster mask embarks on a killing spree. Asano and Ichikawa soon realize that the Zebraman TV show was no ordinary TV show, but a premonition of the future, and now all the world needs is…Zebraman!
Takashi Miike, one of the most prolific directors in the history of Japanese cinema, has, in recent years, shifted gears. While still delivering several films a year, the quantity has been greatly reduced in favour of quality and content. Gone are the days of rushed, video market gangster movies as the self-proclaimed ‘hack’, while still retaining the subversive, genre-bending edge that made him famous, has ventured into the territory of mass appeal. However, Zebraman, like One Missed Call (2003) and The Great Yokai War (2005), which also fall into the commercial category, still remains uniquely Miike.
Zebraman will not please everyone. The comedy is subtle, subdued, and not nearly as outrageous as one would expect from Miike. The story plays itself out as a melodrama, moving at a languid pace. It is, essentially, Miike’s stroke of genius Visitor Q (2001) for a younger audience. It uses the same set-up, with the visitor replaced by Asano. In both films, the father is completely self-absorbed and clueless, the son is abused at school and the daughter is a prostitute, although this is only hinted at in Zebraman. It also seems to be a precursor to Sukiyaki Western Django (2007), in that both films deal with fanboys and their reactions to adaptations and remakes. In Zebraman, it’s almost a stab at the very people that would seek the film out, as Ishikawa is essentially a superhero Otaku, who is so absorbed by Zebraman that he is completely at odds with the rest of the world. Whereas Sukiyaki Western Django dealt with the nature of remakes and the idea that as long as they are created with love, they are acceptable, here, Miike deals with fanboy obsession and the possessive nature that such people develop towards their chosen love.
The film culminates with the realization that, while the script of the show is set, what actually happens in the essential remake of Zebraman in Ishikawa’s life does not matter, as long as the character believes in what he is doing. While the message is sappy, the film is still very entertaining, with a solid performance by Sho Aikawa and a refreshing change of pace for Miike. While it is by no means groundbreaking, it will still make you smile.