As a director Takeshi Miike is many things, but predictable is not one of them. From the intense and disturbing gore of Audition and Ichi The Killer, to the frenetic insanity of Dead Or Alive and Fudoh: The Next Generation, to The Happiness of the Katakuris (which nearly defies description), Miike has remained prolific and difficult to categorize. Zebraman finds the director trying his hand at a tokusatsu production, but as always brings his own unique sensibilities to the project.
"Tokusatsu" translates literally as "Special Effects" and is used to refer to Japanese productions like Kamen Rider, Ultraman, or the Super Sentai series (known as Power Rangers in North America) which focus strongly on effects, but a familiarity with the genre isn't strictly necessary to appreciate Zebraman.
Sho Aikawa, a Miike regular who also starred in Dead Or Alive, plays Shinichi, a school teacher who is obsessed with a short lived television series from his youth starring the titular hero. He's even fashioned himself a costume of the character and spends his evenings practicing his fighting style, even as his family is rapidly falling apart, with his son the target of bullies, his daughter running off with older guys, and his wife possibly cheating on him. Even his job is miserable until Shinpei, a wheelchair-bound transfer student with a similar love of the character, transfers to his school and they strike up a friendship. However, strange events are occurring throughout the city with people committing violent acts almost randomly and alien creatures possibly being behind it. Shinichi finds that his suit gives him the power to fight these monsters as he unravels his connection to the original television series and develops some faith in himself.
Aikawa's performance deserves praise, particularly after seeing him as the hard-boiled cop in Dead Or Alive. Here he's a sad sack loser who slowly finds himself rising to the occasion when faced with the alien threat. He's wonderfully sympathetic, and shows a real gift for physical comedy as he attempts to master his new-found powers. There's a sequence where he's attempting to learn to fly which gives him some hilarious (though painful looking) moments. The rest of the cast are also quite good, particularly Kyoka Suzuki as Shinpei's mother. The relationship that develops between Shinichi and Suzuki's character remains sweet and light, and she's able to handle the more ridiculous scenes admirably among the mounting ridiculousness.
And the humour in this film really is a revelation after seeing some of Miike's more serious works. The film begins with an affectionate parody of The Ring, and some of the more meta references to tokusatsu productions come off really well. In particular, the advertisement for the 70s Zebraman television series (included in full in the extra features) is a whole lot of fun. It's nice to see Miike having a bit of fun with a genre he obviously has affection for, while still being able to reinvent it in a way that can appeal to those not as familiar with the source material.
Unfortunately, the film slows down painfully in the second half, and the nearly two hour running time makes the whole production feel a bit bloated. There's also some unimpressive computer effects on display, though they work well in the context of the film. The film also require that the viewer be content with a number of unanswered questions after watching, which may be frustrating for some. I certainly felt that the development of Zebraman's powers seemed to come out of nowhere, but the story requires more than your average sense of disbelief.
The DVD contains the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the image is clear and crisp, a necessity since quite a bit of the film takes place at night. There are a few fun extras, including the trailer for the original Zebraman television series (shown briefly in the film), an interview with the show's theme song composer, and a truly bizarre live action "hero show" where Zebraman shows some of his moves off in front of a theater crowd. Trailers and a photo gallery round things off.
Blessed with a playful sense of humor about itself, Zebraman manages to rise above its rather odd premise to become something that could appeal greatly to older children, though it shouldn't be confused with a kids film. While the violence on display is more gooey than bloody and the content is generally PG, there is also many of Miike's trademark surreal touches and a few moments where things threaten to fly off the rails. Luckily, the director's steady hand keeps things in check and we get a fun, though overlong, superhero movie with some unique touches.