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Tokyo Zombie
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by Jay Seaver

"They seem so EXCITED about having real, live zombies in Japan"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: In addition to being very funny, "Tokyo Zombie" is educational. I learned that it is possible for an illegal garbage dump in Tokyo to grow so large that it becomes a veritable mountain. I learned that if zombies ever attack, jujitsu is probably the most effective means of self-defense. If there's too many for the jujitsu to work on, try to be swarmed by older zombies, for reasons that become clear toward the end. I was reminded that kids listen to everything their parents say. And, of course, there is a lesson in the true value of friendship.

But mostly, the movie is just silly. Near the base of "Black Fuji", an illegal dumping ground where trash, chemical waste, and inconvenient corpses are disposed of, is a small fire extinguisher factory where Fujio (Tadanobu Asano) and Mitsuo (Sho Aikawa) practice jujitsu when they should be working. While disposing of the body of a manager who discovered their goofing off - these things happen - they witness the bodies buried within Black Fuji coming back to life (all the microbes and toxic waste must have mutated or something) and decide to high-tail it north to Russia, where they'll practice their jujitsu and maybe come back when their fighting skills are so good they can defeat the entire zombie population. They pick up Yoko (Erika Okuda) when they stop to raid a convenience store for supplies, but don't actually get out of Tokyo before the zombie hordes drive them off a bridge. Flash forward five years, and the rich have cordoned off a section of the city and send slaves to battle zombies in the arena as the Romans once sent Christians against lions. They don't like watching Fujio, though - with his jujitsu, the zombies are finished off too fast!

As you might imagine, Tokyo Zombie more closely resembles Shaun of the Dead than Dawn of the Dead. Where Shaun was a romantic comedy at its heart, Tokyo Zombie is basically a buddy movie. Fujio and Mitsuo are a pair of genial slackers who would be quite content if life consisted of noting more than hanging out together and practicing their moves, and in a way, the dead rising gives them an excuse to do so. They bicker, of course - Mitsuo is middle aged and cranky while Fujio is about as smart as a gifted rock - but it's friendly bickering; Yoko will supply the acrimony.

The movie is sort of off-kilter even before the living dead show up - which doesn't take long. "Black Fuji" is the sort of visual that, when seen in a manga (this film is based upon the manga by Yusaku Hanakuma), might be fanciful exaggeration; when translated to live action, it becomes much more literally fantastic. The casual way everyday people are disposing of bodies (or burying people alive) in Tokyo Zombie's world leads to some bizarre interplay - I particularly liked Fujio looking across the path, seeing an old teacher with a student burying something, saying "hey, that's my old teacher"... and hitting him with a shovel. The movie establishes itself as a live-action cartoon with cartoon violence very early. That doesn't mean it's for kids; there's blood and death and off-hand references to what that teacher did to his students.

It works, though, because Sakichi Sato's screenplay and direction create the sort of environment where common sense and occasionally laws of physics can be suspended. That's not totally surprising; the scripts he wrote for Takashi Miike (Ichi the Killer and Gozu) have similar reality-bending predelictions. What is surprising is how friendly charming and playful this movie is compared to those others; the strangeness is more comic absurdity than threatening or disturbing. Sato seems to be working on a fairly limited budget, but uses it to create a fun b-movie environment. Unfortunately, the movie was screened on video at Fantasia, and looked very washed-out in that format; the preview included with the program suggests a much stronger, more colorful film.

The two stars are probably familiar to fans of recent Japanese cinema. Tadanobu Asano is in roughly five films a year these day; here he is working the lovable dumb guy thing for all it's worth. He'll screw up any task he's set to, but he's got enough childlike charm and simple dedication to his friend and their jujitsu to win the audience over. Plus, he's got an afro that is just hilarious; a giggled practically every time I saw him. Sho Aikawa has also been prolific, though often is a supporting role; he's also a Miike regular (all three Dead or Alive movies, Zebraman, and Gozu). He makes Mitsuo an ill-tempered curmudgeon here, mean enough in how he berates Fujio to make the younger character sympathetic. Aikawa has the knack for making Mitsuo as dumb in his own way as Fujio without doing it in quite the same way. Erika Okuda draws the part of the person of reasonable intelligence who winds up exasperated by them in fairly short order; if she has a line that's not yelling at one of them, I don't remember it.

There were roughly a half-dozen zombie movies at Fantasia this year, and all seemed to be trying to mix scares with comedy, in mixed proportions to mixed results. "Tokyo Zombie" is one of the most completely slanted to comedy, and does the job rather well. It won't make the audience jump much, but will probably make them laugh.

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originally posted: 07/27/06 14:30:08
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2006 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Fantasia Film Festival For more in the 2006 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/29/10 lucia jane orlando it rocked 5 stars
8/05/06 TiGrBaLm Asano turns in another wonderful performance, BRAVO! 4 stars
4/10/06 Dan Serwan Hilarious zombie spoof. Sato-san wins. 5 stars
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