Clever & Crafty Superhero Comedy/Satire ZEBRAMAN 2 Earns Its Stripes
I’ve never seen the first ZEBRAMAN picture. Frankly, I didn’t even know one existed. If my internet reading in preparation for writing this review is any indication, I’m not entirely certain how I’d receive it by comparison to the tidy li’l epic that ZEBRAMAN 2: ATTACK ON ZEBRA CITY (hereafter known as “Z2”) surprisingly turned out to be, but I may just have to seek it out now that I know that legendary Japanese director Takashi Miike has taken a swing at the superhero genre of films. With a name like ‘Zebraman,’ it’s safe to expect that the hero’s going to look as zany as he sounds. Perhaps he should! And maybe that’s exactly what Miike would’ve wanted.
I won’t try to decipher too much of the story here, though I’ll give it an honest try. It’s 2010, and Zebraman just saved Japan (and the greater Earth at large) from an alien invasion … or so he thinks. One of the parasitic green critters survives – hiding inside the body of a young girl – but, before our hero can do anything about it, he’s captured by a new menace: a mad scientist bent on splitting Zebraman into two beings, one that’s good and one that’s evil. Flash forward to 2025, and Zebraman’s alter ego wakes up with amnesia … but it doesn’t take long for the doddering school teacher to realize the danger of Zebra Queen, Zebra Police, and Zebra Time! It’s a freakish dystopian tomorrow where techno-pop evil dance princesses rule the day, and survival of the fittest means that, for five minutes every day, lawlessness prevails across Japan in order to provide a balance to the new social order the other 23 hours and 55 minutes requires.
Like I said, I won’t try to decipher too much from it …
That said, Z2 plays out like a bit of an epic B movie. As Miike states in one of the disc’s supplemental features, he rammed the accelerator to the floor for the picture and just kept it going. The incredible combination of story, visuals, music, and generally uncontrolled wackiness amps everything up into massive RPMs, and the talented cast – led by Sho Aikawa returning as Zebraman himself – drags the audience into this hyper-stylized world, forcing the viewers to suspend all disbelief and just have fun going along for the ride. It isn’t perfect, but cult films are never meant to be. Some jokes work. Some probably weren’t necessary. It’s all meant in good fun (not necessarily good taste), and Z2 excels when the elements come together in its own quixotic harmony.
Still, it’s a bit hard to decipher what the viewer should take serious and not-so-serious here because Z2 is, at times, equal parts satire and silliness, equal measures of hero-putdown and hero-worship. Much like Zebra City’s mayor (played with scheming undercurrent by Gadarukanaru Taka) explains to the Zebraman – during the obligatory “supervillain confesses the super-plan to the superhero” scene – life is all about keeping and maintaining a balance. Under Miike’s direction, that’s mostly true throughout the picture, even for one such as myself who came entirely to the property not knowing what to expect. There are enough expository flashbacks for it all to make only as much sense as it needs to, and that’s because Z2 is a cinematic rollercoaster ride. Don’t take it all serious – look for the clever parallels, and marvel at the obvious symbolism of how it takes ‘evil’ to literally re-awaken the forces of ‘good’ – and you’ll have as grand a time as anyone could in Miike’s bizarre world.
In all seriousness, Riiss Naka as the evil Queen Zebra nearly steals the entire show here. It may be Sho Aikawa’s picture under Takashi Miike’s direction, but Naka’s the star here. She’s the real deal all decked up in leather with a head of hair that’s fluffed toward the ceiling. She attacks each and every scene with an overwhelming, lovable villainy. Sure, it doesn’t hurt that she’s magnetically curvaceous like any good action figure should be, but the young starlet puts so much zest and energy into these scenes that it’s clear that she wants the picture to be a success even if only for her own career. She’s a wonderful flamboyant scoundrel – the perfect counterpoint to Aikawa’s foppish schoolteacher – and I can’t imagine the film without her.
What I found particularly rewarding about Z2 is the fact that, despite the fact that the film endlessly thumbs its nose at the superhero genre and subculture, it embraces it with equally as much love and affection. There’s genuine affection here – with the property, with the battles, with the characters, etc. – and that’s a rare commodity in superhero films these days. It seems that every do-gooder in a suit wants to have some dark, brooding back story, and they want to lead lives only of honor and introspection. Zebraman, by contrast, wants to ‘stripe evil’ – a horrible slogan, entirely in keeping with the zaniness of the character – and that’s it. His day job is educating kids, after all, so he can’t be all that bad.
The Blu-ray is loaded with extra features, including a ninety minute documentary on the making of the film. There are a handful of interviews with each of the major players here, including one with Director Miike; they’re all fairly brief, but they highlight what each person went into the role expecting and underscore what they gained from the process. Given the dominance of music in the film, there’s even a segment on the making of the music videos that are cleverly sprinkled throughout the picture. The features are rounded out with the original Japanese TV commercials and coming attractions.
All in all, Z2 was a very pleasant discovery. I’ve never been a huge fan of ‘cultish’ films, but I’m a huge supporter of Takashi Miike’s. This is a welcome distraction and a great way to end my viewing day!
In the interests of disclosure, the folks at FUNimation provided me with an advance copy of the film in order to complete this review.