Zebraman is a love letter to genre entertainment that's not at all generic in its sentiment. It's a superhero movie, as the title suggests, but it has to grow into one: It starts out, more or less, as a tale of quotidian melancholy. Shin’ichi Ichikawa, the middle-aged schoolteacher who will become Zebraman, isn’t hyperbolically “mild-mannered” in the way we associate with superhero back-stories. He’s the sort of friendly-but-reticent person many of us have known: Not a conformist by nature but inclined to take institutional roles because they’re the easiest way to an honest life where you can get by on being nice. This man may lack the respect of his family and co-workers, but he doesn’t let that get to him: He has his self-worth, and he has a hobby that lets him escape from his troubles.
The hobby? Running a one-man fan-club for “Zebraman,” a low-budget superhero series from the 1970s. He memorizes the plots of its seven episodes (Like an animal lover who only takes in sick animals, Ichikawa seems drawn to only the most neglected pop culture) and makes a homemade replica of the hero’s outfit. As played by Sho Aikawa, Ichikawa is neither a cartoon nerd nor an embarrassing social maladroit: He inspires the same kind of quiet affection as Raymond Carver’s and Haruki Murakami’s characters. It is a great performance, made all the more endearing by Takashi Miike’s sensitive direction.
For a purported action movie—and one aimed at children, no less—Zebraman is surprisingly unhurried: The first half-hour lets us warm up to the characters and their environment, a suburb in the Ibaraki prefecture of central Japan. It’s a small town (population approximately 25,000), made to seem neither Spielbergian-idyllic nor the butt of a joke: It’s the sort of town where a man like Ichikawa would live. When he comes home to eat dinner alone (His wife is having an affair, we find out, and his two kids behave like strangers around him—a benign reprise of the family from Miike’s Visitor Q ), he can do so in comfortable silence. And when he befriends an eight-year-old boy in the third-grade class he teaches—a quiet kid who also happens to love “Zebraman”—there are places for them to talk that are perfect refuges for the shy.
Miike films their conversations in long takes at a slight distance from the action. This approach is familiar from Miike’s other lighter films—Young Thugs: Nostalgia (1998), Dead or Alive 2: Birds, The Guys from Paradise (both 2000). The intent, it seems, is to let the characters earn our sympathy by giving them space to be themselves. In the scenes between Ichikawa and the little boy Shinpei (Naoki Yasukochi), this has the effect of making potentially clichéd characters movingly human. Few plots have worse potential for sentimentality than the friendship between an adult and a misfit child, but Zebraman manages to keep the subject fresh, in part by creating a palpable sense of loneliness (thanks, again, to those distanced setups) that can be felt by adults and children alike. Significantly, Miike shoots most of Ichikawa’s conversations this way, no matter if he’s talking to Shinpei’s mother, his fellow teachers, or the Defense Department agent investigating the alien invasion in his home town.
When Ichikawa becomes Zebraman for real to fight off said aliens, the film plays more and more like the kids’ entertainment we first expected it to be. Ichikawa learns to fight by defending women from alien-possessed purse thieves, teaches himself how to fly, has a grand show-down with an alien army in the school gymnasium, et cetera. But it’s a gradual transition from the muted drama of the earlier passages to the special-effects extravaganza of the final scenes. The film contains no abrupt shifts like Miike’s infamous Audition (1999); rather, Zebraman progresses so as to validate the dreams of its hero, transform into the movie he’d love to occupy.
In spirit, if not in execution, this resembles certain classics of the French New Wave, namely Shoot the Piano Player (1960) and A Woman is a Woman (1961), both of which defended critically-disreputable genres by tying them to identifiable human emotion. The idea of a crime movie where the hero is too neurotic for crime or a musical where no one can sing illustrates why ordinary moviegoers find these genres so valuable in the first place: They provide images of gracefulness and confidence that most people wish for yet rarely attain. If Western audiences see less potential subtext in Japanese tokusatsu (literally “special effects,” they refer to the sci-fi and fantasy stories of which the best known to U.S. audiences are the Godzilla series and the TV show edited into the “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers”) than in the genres mined by Truffaut and Godard, this may have something to do with their not being as central to pop culture outside of Japan. But, then, maybe it’s not the depth of the subtext so much as the value individual fans attach to the material. For Ichikawa, Zebraman” is a figure whose will to do good always finds a worthy outlet. Perhaps it’s as simple as that.
In any case, Miike handles the superhero stuff as sincerely as he does the character-driven scenes, keeping the special effects facile in tribute to 70s tokusatsu. It’s obvious, for instance, that Aikawa was directed to kick at the air during the climactic fight and that little green men were drawn in later. The effect may be smoother than the foam-costume fight scenes of the old “Zebraman” episodes (bad-TV pastiches that Miike clearly had a blast making; the Japanese DVD has a hilarious extra that shows him choreographing these scenes with child-like enthusiasm), but they still come with the seams showing. This seems entirely appropriate. The effects demand you compensate for their phoniness with your imagination, accept them as part of the story rather than as autonomous spectacle.
Rarely does Zebraman inspire awe at any image in particular—It’s hard, really, to think of another superhero movie this understated. Tellingly, the film’s biggest effects are cerebral. Not only does the 30-year-old “Zebraman” series end up prophesying the alien invasion, it foretells just about everything that happens in the film, from Ichikawa befriending Shinpei and on. (It’s never explained, though, how Ichikawa magically gains superpowers from his homemade Zebraman costume, which is either an awful inconsistency or an inspired joke on the part of screenwriter Kankuro Kudo.)
To best appreciate the overall sincerity of Zebraman, compare it to an American film made around the same time, Spike Jonze’s Adaptation(2002). That film undergoes a similar transformation from character study to familiar action movie as a blocked Hollywood screenwriter is pressured to dumb down his serious screenplay. The joke—a rather cynical one—is that the clichés of pop culture are all but unavoidable and that any attempt to transcend them only puts you deeper under their influence. Zebraman also presents genre clichés as inevitable, but in no way does it depict them as oppressive. Not only does Ichikawa learn to fly where his fictional predecessor did not (This also goes unexplained), but he maintains his all-too-human reticence when he isn’t fighting. Never does he seem in thrall to a script.
One recurring gag of the movie is that the Defense Department agents investigating the alien invasion live and interact like ne’er-do-well bachelors. Their headquarters are a dump, they’re often teasing each other about their love lives (rather like the thugs in Shoot the Piano Player), and—in a hilarious sequence—use the steamy pool storing classified alien specimens as a sauna. If genre clichés are part of life,Zebraman responds by saying, “Make yourself at home.”