Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 9, 2007


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 3:20 pm

Made in 2004 and opening at Two Boots Theater in New York on August 15th, “Zebraman” is Takashi Miike’s 64th film. For those who are not familiar with his work, he can best be described as the Japanese second cousin to Tim Burton, David Lynch, John Waters and David Cronenberg. Stylistically, Miike movies are a mixture of surrealism and farce, while thematically they often touch upon horror, sexual obsession, gangster vendettas, and titanic clashes between super-heroes and super-villains. If you love Merchant-Ivory films, you will hate Takashi Miike. Fortunately, I hate Merchant-Ivory.

Like Miike’s “The Great Yokai War,” “Zebraman” tells a story of a crusade against Evil Creatures trying to destroy Mankind. While the former film borrowed from manga (comic books), the latter is inspired by Saturday morning super-hero adventure shows. The hero of “The Great Yokai War” was Tadashi, a 10 year old boy who has been chosen to become the Kirin Rider, a warrior that will save mankind from the forces of darkness led by the wizard Kato. “Zebraman” is a wimpy elementary school teacher who fantasizes about being the hero of a Japanese television series that was cancelled in 1978 after 7 episodes. Dressed in a black-and-white striped costume, Zebraman delivers lethal kicks to the bad guys in a style reminiscent of Power Rangers and similar shows. With its affectionate high camp, Miike’s incorporation of faux footage from this television show is a high point of the film.

Steeped in a fantasy world, the high school teacher Ichikawa (Sho Alakawa) spends all his free time in the confines of his bedroom leaping about in a Zebraman costume that he stitched together himself. Fending off imaginary villains gives him a sense of power that he can never realize in his real life. He is bullied by the principal and other teachers, while his son gets bullied by other students for having a wimpy dad. Meanwhile, Ichikawa’s wife is having an affair that she hardly bothers to conceal, while his teenage daughter has liaisons with middle-age perverts she meets on the Internet.

Ichikawa’s sole consolation is the friendship he strikes up with a new transfer student, a boy named Asano who is a paraplegic. Like Ichikawa, Asano is a huge fan of Zebraman and they spend time together surfing the Internet looking for material on the super-hero.

One night Ichikawa works up the courage to descend into the streets in his Zebraman costume, not sure of what he will find. He does not know that the government has dispatched a top-secret research team into his neighborhood to investigate reports of green monsters from outer space that have been killing local residents. When Ichikawa hears a woman screaming, he runs to her rescue and discovers that he has super-powers himself. He destroys the evil green monster through a combination of karate-like blows that were Zebraman specialties, especially with his hoof-like boots. He announces each blow with terms drawn from the TV show like “Spinning tornado head smash” or “Fist lighting bolt from the sky”. Just by coincidence (and in keeping with the conventions of Saturday morning children’s TV), Asano discovers Ichikawa/Zebraman in the act of vanquishing the space alien. Afterwards, Asano gets drawn more and more into the new Zebraman’s crusade until the apocalyptic conclusion to the film when he is rescued by his hero.

Although “Zebraman” is a children’s film, it is much more. There is playfulness at work that will remind you of Tim Burton at his best. In films such as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” or “Pee-Wee’s Great Adventure”, the juvenilia conceals dark obsessions out of Krafft-Ebbing. If anything, Tashiko Miike is Tim Burton’s master on that score.

Born in 1960, Miike studied directing from the great master Imamura Shohei who died in May, 2006. Despite his affinity for pop culture, Miike is obviously knowledgeable about art film and talented enough to make such films if he so decided. Clearly he does what he does because it is more fun, as it is for us.

Youtube clip from the climax of “Zebraman”

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