Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra CityReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/01/18 10:48:49
"Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City" came out three years before "The Purge", and that you didn't hear the fans of Japanese pop culture in general and the prolific Takashi Miike in particular grumble is that the thing they have in common is an indication of just what a shotgun approach Miike can take to making movies: Though he had slowed down from his earlier insane pace, he was still cranking out two features a year, and not all of them are exactly carefully crafted. "Zebraman 2" bounces between ideas and gags like Miike's career as a whole does, but at that scale it's more randomness than variety.After the events of the first Zebraman movie, titular superhero Shin'ichi Ichikawa (Sho Aikawa) has become a hounded public figure, unable to return to his job as a disrespected third-grade teacher and abandoned by his family. One day, he finds himself in the grasp of a mad scientist, spun in a bizarre centrifuge, and then he wakes up fifteen years in the future, amnesiac, and wouldn't you know it, it's almost "Zebra Time" - the five minutes at 5am and 5pm in Zebra City (the former Tokyo) when all crime is legal and even encouraged. He's found riddled with bullets by Junpei Ichiba (Naoki Tanaka), an actor who used to play Zebraman on TV, and taken to a clinic run by Kohei Asano (Masahiro Inoue), one of his former students. There he's told that mad scientist Kozo Aihara (Guadalcanal Taka) is mayor and his daughter Yui (Riisa Naka) is the city's mascot, a pop-star "Zebra Queen". Ichikawa and Yui are connected somehow, and the latter is looking for Sumire (Mei Nagano), a little girl who still has one of the green alien parasites Zebraman defeated fifteen years ago inside her.
It's not hard to see where Miike and writer Kankuro Kudo (who also wrote the first) are going with this, because they are not shy about dropping dialogue about needing to balance black and white, or separating evil elements from good, throughout the entire movie. It's not a bad way to go with the idea, especially with Ichikawa having an all-white costume while Yui is in black for much of the movie, but it's something that probably has to be given a bit more thought than color choices which themselves are more or less abandoned in the last act so that Zebraman can have a cool black costume rather than the deliberately silly but memorable one from the first movie. It's the sort of superhero-movie philosophy that sounds kind of weighty - you can scratch your chin and say, yes, Kudo and Miike are trying to say something here - but is actually kind of an inch deep and jettisoned when it comes time to actually examine how Zebra Time supposedly decreases overall crime or when some other shiny object crosses their paths.
And, for better or worse, there are a lot of shiny objects (well, many of them are shiny black leather or grimy but attention-getting). The script bounces from Zebra Time to the return of the slimy alien invaders to the Zebra Miniskirt Police to a spoof of the superhero television shows that inspired the first film to Yui wanting to vanquish her pop-idol rival to the crush her driver/henchman (Tsuyoshi Abe) has on her. Most of these things aren't exactly crying out for deeper examination, meaning Miike and Kudo get some good bits and bounce off before running something into the ground, but it doesn't really add up to a movie with the apparent ambition they'd shown earlier. There's callbacks that don't make much sense as anything but callbacks and bits that could really use some examination (like, let's get into how the distillation of a man's potential evil is female, and Aihara gets kind of particular about the size of Yui's breasts before calling her his daughter - that's icky in a way that really should make Aihara a much creepier villain than he winds up being). But there's also some really delightful silliness, from the brief moments when Ichikawa gets to come off as an awkward goofball to what may be cinema's largest, if not quite best, fart joke. One suspects that if Zebraman 2 were something that really captured Miike's interest, rather than the next thing on the list for a guy who likes to work fast and keep busy, it might have been refined into something really clever. Instead, it's a mixed bag of intriguing ideas and funny bits that never get pointed in the same direction.
The tendency for this director to work fast can often show in the performances. The bulk of the cast is capable enough - they hit their marks and don't muff their lines and when they're given some bit of exposition explaining their backstories, one is more likely to say that it fits rather than feel it's needed because there's nothing hinting at that part of the character's personality in the performance - but they don't get many moments that feel "just right". In some ways, that allows the cream to rise to the top. Riisa Naka may have a silly character to play in Yui, but she's obviously committed to more than just fitting in skimpy costumes and being a good sport as tentacles poke at her body - she's fierce and deranged, able to play into the moments when the movie gets goofily self-aware, and does the physical stuff well whether it's dancing or fighting (Miike would later use her as the hero's super-sweet girlfriend in his The Mole Song movies, and it's an amusing contrast). Sho Aikawa doesn't get to have the same sort of goofy everyman type he did in the first - confused guy with amnesia is not the same sort of good material as sad sack nobody respects in this case - but he's still got his moments out of the mask and his gravel-voiced righteousness as Zebraman still plays.
The nuts-and-bolts execution of this movie is also pretty decent for all that the storytelling is a bit of a mess. It feels like a nutty superhero thing done on a limited budget, in that locations will often be simple run-down alleys or otherwise sparsely populated, with the big effects-driven scenes a separate thing, but it's 2010 kitsch, not an attempt to recreate 1980, so it involves some CGI decent enough to accept but amusing enough to note. There's actually some fine comic timing to be found in effects bits (the centrifuge randomly stopping dead at points seems like a thing that would not be funny if it took a few frames longer or shorter), and Rui's songs are kind of catchy even if one can't quite tell from the subtitles whether they're supposed to be general pop nonsense or pointedly satirical pop nonsense.All the things "Zebraman 2" does well is a reminder that there's a lot of basic competence and evident skill to movies people will dismiss as the worst thing they've ever seen. It's also a reminder that pulling it all together is a heck of a job, and this is a case where the filmmakers just didn't have some combination fo the time, resources, or crucial bit of inspiration to crack it. What they put together has its moments, but has weaknesses that are just as obvious.
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