God love the Japanese. They can make almost anything entertaining. Need proof? Compare the original Iron Chef with its Chairman Kaga con job brilliance to the equally themed US remake and argue for the latter's joyful indulgence. What about Godzilla and the various made-up monsters he's battled for nearly five decades, or the thriving horror scene which balances superstition with splatter expertly? From their Madison Avenue on mushrooms commercials to their baffling excuses for television, they never lack in imagination or chutzpah. Take Oh! My Zombie Mermaid, for example. Here we have a wrestling movie made up of various cornball elements, some unreal fight scenes, a lot of stupefyingly surreal characterization, and enough heart to fill a ratty hanky with some well-earned tears. Does it make a lot of sense? Hell no. Will you enjoy every wacked out minute? Abso-friggin-lutely.
Shishio is a championship wrestler in Japan. He is married to the beautiful Asami, has two wonderful kids, and a successful organization known as Zero. With all the money he has made, he builds his spouse the spacious dream house she's always wanted. During a party in honor of the abode, an angry competitor named Ichijoh crashes in. He wants to destroy Shishio for killing his brother. Instead, he causes a riot which destroys the home and sends Asami to the hospital. There, she develops a rare viral condition which causes her to turn into a mermaid. Mortgaging everything he can - and taking some additional money from some unsavory criminal sources - Shishio rebuilds his mansion, making it bigger and better. When his loans come due, he agrees to an all-or-nothing death match with the five members of the deadly DDD clan. With an unscrupulous TV producer guiding the spectacle, our hero hopes to win the day, pay off his debts, and cure his wife. Naturally, forces both outside and inside the sport have other plans for the elephantine champion.
Listen up WWE - instead of positioning your steroid rage stars as the next action and/or horror heroes, why not kick their fictional façade up a few dozen notches and do what the Japanese do. Similar in style to the Luchadore myths manufactured in Mexico, Asian wrestling is rife with heroes and villains, folklore and old world ideals of honor and duty - and that's when they are off the matt. A perfect example of how to make such material entertaining and unique is this oddball collection of comic book characterization and wire fu fun. In the story of championship chest thumper Shishio (an actual star grappler in his native land) and his fists of fury organization, we get stunts, gore, sly social commentary, media condemnation, and a bizarro love story featuring a genetically altered wife, a smokin' hot sister-in-law, and a beefy big guy who constantly wears his battered and beaten heart on his cankle-like wrists. Indeed, Shinya Hashimoto is so marvelous as our beleaguered icon, so convincing as a man literally carrying the weight of his entire existence on his sumo-like shoulders, they we often forget the other compelling work from the cast around him. He's just that magnetic.
The multicultural cast, including Nicholas Pettas as a bad-ass with a bone to pick with Shishio, never once buys into the camp or kitsch factors here. Instead, they play every scene in a realistic, if slightly melodramatic manner (the Japanese can't completely leave behind their operatic kabuki background). We believe in the quest our star must go on, we become enraptured by his devotion to his family. We love that he can reject the obvious advances of the sister-in-law Nami (starlet Sonim, looking good) while fully comprehending the suicidal nature of his devotion. And then once we get to the DDD crew and their supervillain machinations, everything is amplified 100% percent. Director Naoki Kudo completely understands the epic nature of the construct, even inside something that often plays like a Warner Brothers cartoon with added carnage. He stages every stand-off with passion and panache, giving us the typical beats (good guys is winning, then waning, they totally kicking butt) in ways we find undeniable captivating. Sure, he gets caught up in the Matrix like need to defy gravity, physics, and logic, but in a film like Oh! My Zombie Mermaid, you except that.
Why you don't expect is to be fooled by the title. Indeed, there is only one "zombie" in the entire narrative and it has nothing to do with Shishio's wife changing into a mermaid. Both elements are separate and very minor in the narrative's plotting - and oddly enough, both are also kind of a rip-off. The reason for the aquatic transformation doesn't make a whole lot of sense (the conspiracy aspect of it definitely gets lost in the East/West translation) and we buy the undead as part of the DDD, but little else. Indeed, the original title of this film Ah! House of Pro Wrestling is so much more inspired and descriptive that the Westernized version feels cheap and made-for-marketing-purposes only. Indeed, presented the right way, this would be a clear cult classic, the kind of film that's found, embraced, and talk about among geeks, dweebs, and film nerds alike. Trying to tap into the already raging horror spoof niche (which a title change like this clearly wants to attempt) fails to live up to the film's many pleasures. Ignore the mad moniker and get prepared to be wowed by one weird-ass squared-circle delight. You may not like the lack of undead water sports, but everything else is peachy.
The DVD, delivered by Eastern Star/Diskotek Media, offers a very good 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Kudo treats the material like a farce and this clearly shows in his varied visual approach. The colors are bright, the details definitive, and the overall look combines the best of both the high tech progress of video and the old school feeling of film.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Stereo mixes preserve the original Japanese language, offering excellent aural ambience as well as subtitles that can be shaky at times. Not because of the translation, but because whenever the character of Ichijoh shows up, everyone starts speaking English...and the subtitles disappear...and in many cases, they are needed. Thick accents render the words almost unintelligible. While it's not a deal breaker, it would be nice if distributors understood that, once we get into a pattern of "reading" a film, jumping back and forth between that ideal is very irritating.
Eastern Star/Diskotek Media pads the package with some interesting added content. There is a look at the trailer, a TV spot, a "Special Announcement", a behind the scenes peek at actress Sonim's martial arts training, a look at how the exploding house scene was created, and a wonderful Q&A with the cast, post-screening. This last feature is a lot of fun, since we get to see the actors outside their costumed roles, as well as hear them discuss the making of the movie. While a commentary track would have been nice, along with a real backstage discussion on how the movie was crafted, this collection of extras is well worth your time.
It's never nice to fool your audience. If you call something Oh! My Zombie Mermaid you expect to see a cannibal corpse in a fish tail at some point along the way. So director Naoki Kudo doesn't come through with the aforementioned living dead denizen of the deep. Big deal. The story of Shishio and his balls-out battle to save face - and his family - is more than enough to earn a Highly Recommended rating. While all the sidetracks and subplots are more or less unnecessary, they add a level of lunacy to what is already an over-the-top treat. If you like your man-on-man action sweating, stunt-filled, and occasionally straying over into the surreal side, Oh! My Zombie Mermaid is for you. Ignore the title and dive right in. You'll find this example of arch athletic acumen a true work of baffling genius.
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