Friday, November 02, 2007

Boston Fantastic Film Festival: ­Zebraman

You can't have a festival of this type without something from Takashi Miike. Actually, you should generally be able to scare up two or three films by Miike, the man is so prolific. I still haven't watched my DVD of The Great Yokai War yet, so this was my first exposure to "Takashi Miike, family filmmaker", and I liked what I saw. I kind of wish the Festival had scheduled it for an earlier hour and advertised it to families a bit - I would have loved to see how genuine kids reacted to it.

For those unfamiliar with Takashi Miike, him directing a family comedy is roughly equivalent to executives at Warner Brothers getting together and saying "you know who would be a great director for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows? David Cronenberg!"

Although, now that I think about it - that needs to happen anyway.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2007 at the Brattle Theatre (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

Zebraman actually came out before The Great Yokai War in Japan, although the latter made it to America first. So let the record show that Takashi Miike did have some practice making family films before that better-known one. Though more modestly budgeted, Zebraman is still a bunch of fun, with an injection of crazy that would delight kids it their parents would let them anywhere near it.

Sho Aikawa stars as Shin'ichi Ichikawa, the second-grade supervisor at a medium-sized elementary school. No-one at the school respects him, to the point where the kids are beating up his son. His teenage daughter Midori (Yui Ichikawa) is seeing a much older man. It would probably only be worse if they knew he spent his evenings cosplaying in a papier-mache costume based upon the hero of his favorite 1970s superhero show, Zebraman (which, as if to illustrate how pathetic Shin'ichi is, was canceled after a handful of episodes. The sad thing is, the city is actually in need of a superhero. Midori's boyfriend has a second life as crab-masked villain, and there are enough slimy green aliens lurking underneath the school's gymnasium that the government has dispatched a team to investigate.

The line between playing a superhero story straight and doing parody is hard to find in the best of cases; Miike and writer Kankuro Kudo spend most of their time on the spoofy side, but play it straight enough to earn a bit of suspense. Their pastiche of 1970s sentai programs seems pretty close to spot-on, both in clips and a dream sequence where Shin'ichi fantasizes about the mother of one of his students as "Zebranurse". Affection can come across as disdain when filmmakers try to precisely replicate something that might not hold up to a more critical eye, but they generally find the right mix. The trick, apparently, is that it's okay to initially mock Shin'ichi for dressing up in a stupid costume by having him get his butt kicked early, but the somewhat corny good-intentioned messages of the genre are to be embraced rather than mocked.

Because Miike's name is attached to the movie, I don't know how many kids this winds up playing to outside Japan - the folks who would pick up a foreign family adventure know his reputation. Of course, I don't know who its target audience was over there, or whether it was aimed for the teen and older crowd. If it were remade in the US, Crab-man probably wouldn't be seducing sixteen-year-old girls, and I really doubt that the fungus that has Koen Kondo's military investigator scratching his junk would still be around; they might also tone down the violence with the possessed kids. A lot of the other kid-friendly stuff is done without the slightest hint of irony, though. Kids love green slime, and the CGI for the aliens is almost cute. The hero and the kids who love him are perfectly pure of heart. Some of the details are wonderfully silly, like Shin'ichi's "bedhead" (his hair grows into a zebra's mane when his zebra-sense detects that it's time to save the day!). And the final big action scene is just gloriously over the top.

Sho Aikawa is a lot of fun as the Shin'ichi. He embraces the dorkiness of the character in all its forms - the teacher no-one respects, the loser in a homemade costume, the guy who discovers it's all real but ridiculous. Koen Kondo is similarly fun as the man investigating the apparent alien activity, since he always seems to expect that job would be a little cooler and high-budget, and alternates between trying to elevate it, being disappointed, and finally just giving in to the fact that he's in a low-budget-sci-fi world (but without winking at the audience).

It's great fun, even if the goofiness has a bit more in the way of claws than its American equivalents. Still, it's not too nasty for anyone old enough to read the subtitles, and grown-ups shouldn't find it too terribly juvenile, either.

Also at HBS.

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