Takashi Miike’s Zebraman is a dry yet heartfelt look at what’s best about superheroes.
Zebraman is a film that aims to hit a little too close to home for some of its viewers. Our protagonist is Shinichi Ichikawa, a grade-school teacher who’s unpopular with his students and misunderstood at home. To escape his dreary regular life, Ichikawa cosplays as his favorite childhood tokusatsu hero, Zebraman. At first he only acts out Zebraman’s signature moves in his room, but his life takes a turn for the weird once he dares to go outside in his costume.
Ichikawa is the stereotypical nerd/geek/otaku /etc. He has trouble communicating with the people around him and he would rather draw Zebraman than pay attention during a meeting. Ichikawa is the kind of guy who doesn’t realize why sneaking off in the middle of the night to visit one of your third-graders, while wearing a cheap costume, might be wildly inappropriate. Even his strong sense of justice is out of place in the film’s world at first.
Zebraman is all about turning our complex real world into the world of tokusatsu, where the line between good and evil is clear and dreams are a tangible force. The film’s world transitions to one where people appreciate altruism instead of trying to bury it with bureaucracy. The transition is framed by an alien invasion, which provides clear language for addressing society’s ills.
Zebraman wears Miike’s traditional “weird” signature proudly, even when establishing the mundane world in the beginning. I’m always excited to see world’s where it feels like something strange is going on just under the surface. What’s interesting about this film is how it punishes characters who sense the truth before Miike is ready to reveal it. The catharsis comes when said characters are finally vindicated, sometimes posthumously, once the film goes full fantasy.
Miike definitely pays his dues when it comes to acknowledging classic toku. The original 1978 Zebraman is played by Hiroshi Watari (Sharivan, Spielban), and has a theme song by none other than Ichiro Mizuki (Kamen Rider Stronger, Spielban). The entire film even has a faded filter over it that gives it a 70’s TV look, but that might be my imagination. ’78 Zebraman’s costume looks like a believable artifact from that time. He even has the requisite motorcycle.
I had a lot of fun with Zebraman. I first saw it seven years ago, back before I knew anything about toku, so it was great to revisit it with the knowledge I have now. It’s great commentary not just on Japan and tokusatsu, but on the greater superhero myth in general.
Let us know what you think and come back next time for Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City.