In 10 Words or Less
Crazy mash-up of American superhero and Japanese monster movies
Loves: Wacked-out movies, Japanese-brand crazy
Likes: Takashi Miike's work
Dislikes: Incomprehensible crazy
Hates: Ultraman-style action shows
I never saw the first Zebraman film, released back in 2004, but from what I've read it was a pretty light-hearted superhero adventure, showing off director Takashi Miike's genuine range as a filmmaker, not unlike fellow cult idol Robert Rodriguez' Spy Kids franchise. Six years later though, Miike's wildly diverse filmmaking efforts brought a new Zebraman film to the screen, and though its not as extreme as the films that made him a big name in international film, this one is anything but family-friendly. If anything, it's tailor-made to become a midnight-movie favorite.
After a short recap of the events of the first film, which include alien parasites and an elaborately-costumed caped crusader modeled after a zebra, we learn that our hero (frequent Miike star Show Aikawa) has retired, but he's captured by a creepy scientist and soon he's mysteriously deposited in the year 2025, being chased down by storm troopers who riddle his body with bullets, during a wave of slaughter, while a goth girl known as the Zebra Queen sings and dances for her adoring followers. Don't worry if that sentence doesn't make sense to you, because the action isn't much more sensible on-screen, unfolding like a trippy music video made following the direction of "use as many elements from popular cult sources as possible." It would be quite difficult for the film to display more influences, pulling from movies and TV shows including Kamen Rider, Blade Runner, Batman and many others.
Traumatized into amnesia by his time travel and unaware of his powers, Zebraman finds himself cared for by a doctor and an actor (the original TV Zebraman who influenced our hero), members of a rebel force that's been rescuing the victims of "Zebra Time." Strap yourself in, because this may be the weirdest concept you've ever heard. The A Clockwork Orange-inspired Aihara, leader of the government and Zebra Queen's father, has instituted a period of time each day when the Zebra Police (made up of two groups, one with storm troopers and the other mini-skirted vixens) can hunt and kill pretty much whoever they want, and government leaders are free to assault, rape and murder as they please. Sure, that sounds a tiny bit weird, but wait until you see it happen, particularly when one legislaor demonstrates his predilection toward women's wrestling on an unwilling subordinate. This is trademark Miike, just with the gore toned down.
There's so much happening here, as Zebraman recovers with the help of a little girl and the story behind his time travel and the ascension of the Zebra Queen is revealed, that it can be very easy to lose track of what's going on, between all the special effects, flashbacks and music videos thrown your way. Of course, that's if you have any idea what's happening to begin with, as the story isn't the easiest to follow. Then you need to stick with it for nearly two hours, which isn't easy either, as the story drags in the middle before it starts collapsing onto itself, like the mythical snake swallowing its tail. Honestly, at one point, I accidentally jumped back a chapter with my remote, and didn't realize it for almost 10 minutes.
While the story isn't one of the most cohesive or engaging I've seen recently, even if it is full of classic comic-book ridiculousness, Miike lends it such incredible style that it's just beautiful to watch, pulling out pretty much every visual trick in the book, and covering it all in a thick layer of CGI. To be honest, toward the end, when the plot comes to a head, calling together elements from across the entire film, and the previous one as well, the visuals were spellbinding, making me wish I cared more about what was happening. It also made me wish that Miike would try his hand at a Godzilla movie, where his gift for gorgeous chaos could be put to perfect effect.
DVDTalk received pre-release screener copies of this set, so the packaging is an unknown quantity. Also unknown is what's on the third disc of this three-disc set, as we only received the first two discs, but since the Blu-Ray is labeled as "Feature and Extras" and the DVD is labeled as "Disc 1: Feature," one assumes that the third disc is a DVD with the extras found on the Blu-Ray, but we all know what happens when you assume. The Blu-Ray features a slightly-animated menu with options to watch the film, select scenes, adjust languages and check out the extras. There are no audio options, while subtitles are available in English.
The 1080p AVC-encoded 1.78:1 transfer looks tremendous, which is impressive for such a dark film. Of course, there are so many visual effects throughout the film that warp the image that it might be hard to pick out when things aren't working or if Miike just meant for that part to look that way. The black levels are fine throughout, colors are, for lack of a better word, appropriate (since everything is manipulated for an exacting look) and the level of fine detail is solid (take a look at any of the superhero costume close-ups for fun), but there's some occasional noise in the solid areas that can distract. Overall though, the film just looks good, and the CG work surprisingly does not stand out from the rest of the film, blending in nicely.
When cranking, the Japanese Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track is extremely active, filling the surrounds with blasts, bullets and music, and kicking in some strong low-end activity. When the movie's about dialogue though, it's all front and center, but it is strong and clear. Sometimes, it feels like it's just an all-out assault though, when it comes to the special effects, without much in terms of a dynamic mix. For instance, there's a scene where bullets are fired from left to right on-screen, but you can't really tell from the sound. However, later on, in the midst of another firefight, you hear bullets from different directions at different times, so there was definitely some effort put into enhancing the sound.
Note: All of the extras are provided in standard definition.
The key extra is Ramping Up for "Attack on Zebra City", an 96-minute feature-length look behind the scenes at the making of the film, presented in Japanese with English subtitles. Eschewing the smoothness of a polished documentary for fly-on-the-wall access, you get to see tons of on-set footage, looks at pre- and post-production efforts, interviews with those involved, and a chance to see Miike on the job, which is a great treat for fans. Even if this movie's not your thing, but you're interested in how movies are made, this is an extra worth watching.
The remainder of the extras are short featurettes, starting with a nearly seven-minute interview with Miike, in which he puts the majority of the focus and praise onto his collaborators. He's a well-spoken man and he's certainly given a lot of thought to the questions he's asked about Zebraman. Interviews with four of the actors follow, featuring Riki Abe (4:27), Show Aikawa (5:23), Masahiro Inoue (4:56) and Riisa Naka (5:12). These are somewhat templated interviews, as they get very similar questions, talking about their casting, castmates and Miike, but it is a chance to get to known them a bit better, as they feel free to expand upon their answers. Annoyingly though, the subtitles start with the actor's words, then interrupt them for the on-screen titles, before returning to the actor. This makes it a bit hard to follow.
Checking in at just over seven minutes, "Making of the Zebra Queen Music Video" is like a smaller version of the documentary extra, focused on the shooting of the two videos in the film. Many of the on-screen titles here are not translated, so it's not clear who is who, but it seems like Miike was just hanging out, handing over control to two other guys, who lead the choreography and shooting.
The bonus material concludes with some ephemera in the form of trailers and ads.
The Bottom Line
I'd never recommend Zebraman 2 to anyone I know and respect, for fear that I could end a friendship if the recommendation were mistaken for some sort of mental assault, but I might leave it at a pal's house in the hopes that they enjoy the unusual experience of watching it (after all, they are friends with me.) No matter how one views the strange thrills the film offers though, there's no denying the quality of the presentation and the impressive extras included in the package, making it easy to recommend to the right person.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.