LIFF 2010: ZEBRAMAN 2 review

Sometimes Takashi Miike's freewheeling imagination spits out something glorious; profane, demented, moving or profound. Sometimes it grinds to a halt, jammed up with abortive experiments like his Masters of Horror entry Imprint and unfortunately, Zebraman 2 is another one of these. It could only have come from Miike - it's shot through with the kind of inspired, childlike madness only he could deliver - but it's also a bloated, directionless mess of a movie, fun while you're forcing it down but liable to leave you wondering why you bothered afterwards.


It starts not long after the first film, where everyman schoolteacher Ichikawa (Shou Aikawa) transformed into the titular superhero to save the world from destructive, body-snatching little green men. He's world famous, but it's taken its toll, with his wife and friends shunning him now he's pursued by fans and news crews round the clock. Then abruptly he wakes up more than a decade into the future to find Tokyo transformed into a hideous totalitarian regime modelled on a twisted interpretation of his alter ego - only he's got no memory of who might have been responsible, or even that he used to be Zebraman.


So what's going on? Everything and nothing, basically. Despite the ridiculous premise Zebraman 2's backstory does have a strange logic, of sorts, and numerous callbacks to the first film both to give a little buzz to those who watched it and explain proceedings to those who didn't. Ichikawa's pupils have grown up, with Ichiba (Naoki Tanaka) now a doctor leading the resistance against the evil mayor lording it over the city. Not all of the little green men have been eradicated. And the new Zebra Queen (Riisa Naka, having the time of her life) acting as the figurehead for the regime has more of a connection to Zebraman than he'd like to admit.


At the same time, it's difficult to explain in words the nature of the nonsensical, high-octane babble in which this is all conveyed, particularly to those who've never seen a Miike film before. The notorious auteur is clearly having fun making Zebraman 2, but evidently he's also pitching it at fans first and foremost. Like the original, the production is yet another loving tribute to (and parody of) old tokusatsu television series with the usual riffs on self-belief and heroism - it's just making use of a much bigger budget.


The thing is, beyond the obvious leap in scope and the improved special effects, there's really not much here to give the impression Miike is trying that hard to pull everything together. Zebraman 2 is little more than an extended demo reel of sly, sometimes juvenile gags, blatant tugging on the audiences' heartstrings and flashy setpieces - which is frequently not a bad thing in and of itself but doesn't make for great cinema, populist or otherwise.


It's an entertaining ride, for those with some understanding of what they're in for. Miike does put the money to relatively good use and the sheer gleeful idiocy of many of his ideas makes them worth watching regardless, like the giant tower announcing the start of Zebra Time (five minutes every day where no law exists in Tokyo), Zebra Queen's pop videos, the flashback revealing where Zebraman spent the past fifteen years, the pyrotechnic climax...Miike clearly knows how stupid the film is, too, with several gags sending it up and a cast playing the material energetically straight.


Yet more than two hours of this stuff in one long, breathless rush is more than likely too much for all but the most devoted of the director's followers. Past the opening flashback Miike starts as he means to go on, in a blast of pop-art black and white. It barely lets up, yet there's no context, nothing but the bare minimum of explanation, no fleshing anyone out, no real emotion of any kind. Obviously lengthy heart-to-hearts or philosophical debate in a lunatic superhero parody aren't strictly necessary, but some hint of actual humanity or meaning would have been nice, and no such thing ever comes.


And the final damning blow is, while other directors frequently can't match his second-rate output... Miike's already parodied low-rent Japanese pop culture while successfully throwing in both his typical madness and some truly heartbreaking emotional asides. The Great Yokai War comfortably eclipses Zebraman 2 in every respect besides the budget; it's funnier, more inventive, stranger and the final shot is an utterly devastating sucker-punch to the gut this film doesn't begin to live up to.


Zebraman 2 can still be cautiously recommended. It's Takashi Miike, and there are things here - as with just about all of his films - the like of which you will almost certainly not have seen from any other director. But it's definitely one of his also-rans, where Miike himself has pretty much already used every theme to far greater effect, and unless you have a thing for equine superheroes, taken as a whole the movie is ultimately forgettable.


(Zebraman 2 was screened as part of the 24th Leeds International Film Festival.)

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