Takashi Miike’s best known for ultra violent or disturbing films like Audition, Ichi The Killer or Visitor Q but back in 2004 he made this extremely likeable superhero flick. Marvel have been credited at making comic films fun again but Miike deserves credit for doing it first and in certain ways it’s quite similar to the best Marvel films which have been made since, with the main thing it has in common with them being that it spends a lot of time making the central character very human, the action scenes are inventive and fun, and it never takes itself too seriously in the way certain DC films have unfortunately done so.
The film’s based around Shinichi Ichikawa (Shō Aikawa), a meek Japanese teacher who struggles with the lack of respect from his students and his family, and he dreams of dressing up like Zebraman, a superhero from a tv series from his youth that was cancelled after just seven episodes. One night he finally summons up the courage to do so, but what takes him by surprise is that after initially being inept he suddenly starts gaining the powers that the character has, and encounters a strange green gooey alien race who are possessing humans and have plans to take over the world. At the same time he starts bonding with one of his students, Shinpei (Naoki Yasukochi) who’s in a wheelchair and is also a fan of the old tv series, and a government agency who are also trying to track down the aliens start to realise that Zebraman is the only one who can save them.
What makes it different from a million superhero movies that came before it is the bond that Shinichi makes with the wheelchair bound child and his mother, it’s genuinely quite touching stuff and Miike is as interested in that storyline as the superhero antics. Not that it comes at the expense of such things, when Shinichi dons his costume it becomes a delightfully mad film, especially as it goes along and he becomes more and more adept at fighting the invading aliens. There’s a lot of enjoyable lunacy in these scenes, one of the best being when the aliens possess a sod load of school kids who go on to hijack a school bus and go on the rampage.
Also pleasingly strange are the clips we get to see from the Zebraman tv show, with Zebraman coming complete with his own catchphrase of “Black and White ecstasy!”, and in one scene when his arm is chopped off Zebra Nurse turns up (along with her own theme music) to save the day and help him fend off a giant half crab half human creature. The film becomes even madder towards the end as the aliens up their game and it features a truly unique scene where a woman giving birth is possessed and gives birth to a green baby, while the big finale is an absolutely glorious piece of crazed action and adventure.
The film was such a success that it led to the sequel Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City which I’ve yet to see but am greatly looking forward to. A superhero movie with real heart Zebraman deserves a lot of kudos for being more than just action based and though in the light of so many recent Marvel movies it’s not quite as unique as it once was it’s still one of the best of the genre, and the fantasy elements are pretty damn special too, so if you’ve not tired of the constant onslaught of caped crusaders and the like I’m certain you’ll enjoy it a great deal.