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Friday, April 30, 2010

'Zebraman 2: Zebra City no Gyakushu'

Zebraman returns in gross green-goo glory


Who wouldn't want to be a superhero? The hero of Takashi Miike's 2004 action comedy "Zebraman" certainly would. Ichikawa (Sho Aikawa) is a nerdy teacher whose life is one big zero — until he dresses up like a 1970s superhero and takes to the streets of Yokohama at night, looking for citizens in distress.

Zebraman 2: Zebra City no Gyakushu Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Zebraman 2: Zebra City no Gyakushu
Standoff: The Zebra Queen (Riisa Naka) gets ready to face off against Zebraman (Sho Aikawa). © 2010 "ZEBRA MAN-ZEBRA CITY NO GYAKUSHU" SEISAKU IINKAI

Director: Takashi Miike
Running time: 106 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens May 1, 2010
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Then he discovers that, for-real, space aliens have landed in his neighborhood and are insinuating their slimy green selves into human bodies. Though terrified, he goes on the attack as Zebraman — and discovers powers he never dreamed he had. But what if those powers, including the ability to fly, desert him at a crucial moment?

The joke of a cosplay (costume play) superhero living out his fantasies, while being scared out of his wits, was clever and Sho Aikawa — who had played dozens of tough gangsters and cops — was perfectly cast against type as Zebraman. The film was hardly Miike at his most extreme — the bad boy of Japanese films toned down his shock schtick out of consideration for the kiddies — but it was a hit, Miike's then biggest ever.

Now Miike, Aikawa and scriptwriter Kankuro Kudo have reunited for "Zebraman 2" with a bigger budget and bigger ambitions. But the film still has plenty of familiar Miike touches, from gross-out gags involving green goop to the vampish look of his villainess, Queen Zebra (Riisa Naka), resplendent in her low-cut leathers, big hair and raccoon makeup.

Like its predecessor, "Zebraman 2" is more a parody than a genuine action pic, though as usual with Miike, the genre lines get blurred — or obliterated. Miike fans won't find much new — and certainly nothing to surpass the wonderful strangeness of "Kyofu Yakuza Dai-gekijo Gozu" ("Gozu," 2003) or "Dead or Alive: Final" (2002), Miike films whose tropes "Zebraman 2" recycles. Also present are stylistic borrowings from his 2009 action-comedy smash "Yatterman" ("Yattaman").

The film answers the question Miike fans (including this one) have long asked: what if he got both a largish (for Japan) budget and freedom to play with it? The answer is entertaining in a Greatest Hits way, if not quite Miike at his unfettered best.

The setting is Tokyo 2025, where a now white-haired Ichikawa (Aikawa), awakes after a 15-year sleep. The city's name, he discovers, has been changed to Zebra City and the pudgy, power-mad mayor, Aihara (Guadalcanal Taka) has decreed that for five minutes twice a day, called "Zebra Time," masked, leather-jacketed police can gun down anyone in the streets as a "crime prevention" measure.

Meanwhile, huge outdoor screens are playing a video of a Lady Gaga-esque number performed by Yui Aihara (Riisa Naka), AKA Zebra Queen — the mayor's ego-mad daughter. Naturally, it is No. 1, with a bullet.

Poor Ichikawa is soon blasted by police fire, but is rescued by a white-clad Good Samaritan named Ichiba (Naoki Tanaka), who spirits him to a camp outside the city. There, survivors of Zebra Time recover — and plot the overthrow of Aihara and his minions. Ichiba, who was a big fan of Zebraman as a boy, guesses Ichikawa's real identity (or rather real fake identity), but Ichikawa does not remember being Zebraman or anything else.

While Ichikawa undergoes a slow, painful rehab for his wounds, Yui plots to make herself a national heroine by tracking down and destroying an escaped space alien with the aid of a besotted lieutenant (Tsuyoshi Abe). Flash back to Ichikawa, who befriends a mute girl with mysterious powers. Her touch jolts him out of his torpor and into his old Zebraman self, in a new all-white form. Let the revolution begin!

Aikawa, now pushing 50, makes no attempt to hide the lines and wrinkles — in fact, his decrepitude is an integral part of the story. Even so, he can still pull off his signature slick fighting moves as Zebraman, while reverting to a goofily appealing everyman in his scenes as Ichikawa.

The film's big discovery is Riisa Naka, all of 19 and utterly unrecognizable from her ditzy nurse in "Pandora no Hako" ("Pandora's Box") and love-struck schoolgirl in "Toki o Kakeru Shojo" ("The Girl Who Leaped Through Time"). Though no Lady Gaga (one is plenty), she injects her performance numbers with a coy insolence that rides the line between sexy and funny — but I would come down on the side of sexy. Also, while showing us Yui's spoiled, mean-girl surface — and making her an ideal hate figure, Naka hints at a more vulnerable, human side.

The obvious comparison is with Kyoko Fukada's Doronjo, the va-va-voom leader of the bad guys in "Yatterman," but fans expecting a similar scenario of good ("Yatterman 1") and evil ("Doronjo") falling in love have a few surprises in store. For "Zebraman 2" it's better to leave preconceptions — or rather, your entire left brain — at the door. And, for those with delicate stomachs — go easy on the snacks.


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