Who is Takashi Miike? What can we learn of this man who’s directed movies as different in tone and intention as the Dead or Alive series, The Bird People of China, and Visitor Q? Like the great artisans who performed yeoman’s work under the studio system, Miike can do anything and, more than that, does. We’re not used to that anymore here in the States, where outside the purgatory of straight-to-video, directors seemingly unafraid of slumming trump up B-movie assignments into marquee-spangled events (I’m looking at you, RR and QT).
It’s not likely Zebraman, Miike’s latest to arrive on our shores and one of four productions the almost inhumanly prolific Japanese director helmed in 2004, will solve the riddle at the center of such an equally lauded and reviled body of work. Due to his obsession with extreme violence, sexuality, and all nature of perversions, Miike has been not unfairly labeled a shock-cinema director — but then what to make of Zebraman, an at times gross but mostly lighthearted superhero fantasy? Is it a condescending lark on a genre, or a near-egoless tribute to the gemlike perfection of the kid-friendly crowd-pleaser?
Whatever it is, it’s fun. As written by Kankuro Kudo, Zebraman combines elements from the superhero movie, with Miike regular Sho Aikawa (last seen as a reincarnated homosexual Yakuza in Miike’s Dadaist masterpiece Gozu) playing a loser teacher who wins the respect of his family and colleagues as the titular striped crusader; tacky Troma gross-out films, in the form of the green flubber-like goo that heralds an alien invasion, gratuitous references to twisted corpses and pants-crapping, and some terrible CGI; bottom-of-the-barrel Japanese television, as with the campy Power Rangers spoof on which Aikawa bases his alter ego; and grade-Z monster movies, because what Japanese movie would be complete without an apocalyptic invasion of monsters and the threat of nuclear warfare? Zebraman is typical Miike in that it is a Frankenstein of a film that somehow is of a piece. It’s almost impossible that it wouldn’t be, with a classically structured plot: As Shin’ichi Ichikawa (Aikawa) struggles to maintain order at home with his weak authority, a mysterious green alien slime turns townpeople into crazed criminals and turns Shin’ichi’s love for the obscure, cancelled Zebraman show — with a young, Zebra-worshipping handicapped student as the only one who trusts in the power of this unconventional hero — into an opportunity to don a black-and-white costume, with cape, and bounce the bad guys.
Perhaps the hallmark of any Miike film, no matter the mode, is the singular way it balances the formulaic and the completely unique. But since Zebraman is less a convention-defying standout than the far more aggressive Audition or Ichi the Killer, and is maybe half an hour too long, the last question concerning the film becomes “would we be watching this if it weren’t a Takashi Miike film?” I’d like to think so, for the sheer fact that despite not going too far afield, there’s really nothing else like Zebraman. The film’s dialogic refrain is the go-getting “If you believe, all your dreams can come true,” and coming from the man who brought us lactating innkeepers and underwear-clad farm animals, what would otherwise be a platitude is nothing short of goddamn inspiring.