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Compared to Assassins—or, for that matter, the first Zebraman (2004), one of the director’s sweetest and most accessible works—Zebraman 2 is unfocused, illogical, and frequently perverse. In other words, it’s pure Miike, so restless (and so ingenuous) in its enthusiasm for filmmaking that it seems to ready to burst at any time into several other movies.
In the distant future of 2025 (not a typo), Tokyo lives under the rule of an evil dictator who’s rechristened it Zebra City. His most famous innovation is Zebra Time, two five-minute intervals each day when police and politicians are free to murder whomever they want. In a distinctly Miike-esque touch, Zebra Time only bolsters the mayor’s international reputation: at one point it’s announced that 17 U.S. states plan to implement a version of it. Perhaps his daughter’s successful pop career (modeled after Lady Gaga’s) has contributed to his strong reputation. No, it’s probably because he’s killed all of his opponents.
When will the superhero Zebraman (Sho Aikawa) emerge from his state of hibernation and come to the aid of the people? There’s no zebra time like the present! With the help of a rogue doctor, a 25-year-old woman trapped in the body of a preadolescent girl, and a hammy actor who once played Zebraman on network TV, the hero returns to his former glory and saves the day. I hope I’m not spoiling too much by revealing that his conquest involves eating alive a squishy green alien the size of a skyscraper.
Tonally, the movie has very little in common with its predecessor, a character-driven story about a shy schoolteacher’s transformation into a superhero. (It’s not as bizarre a sequel, however, as Miike’s Dead or Alive 2: Birds, which recast the original’s leads as completely different characters.) The humor is darker, the characterizations broader, and the parodies more obvious. This is Miike at his most playful, treating the popular movie fantasy as a canvas for his wildest ideas. (It probably has more in common with his romantic comedy/horror musical The Happiness of the Katakuris than it does with the first Zebraman.)
Many of the ideas fall flat. I could have done without the references to Alien and Jurassic Park, and the pop numbers are nowhere near as ridiculous as the Lady Gaga videos they’re ostensibly parodying. But the inspired non sequiturs confirm that commercial success has not made Miike any less weird. The loving recreations of 70s children television, the allusions to Zen Buddhism (and during fight scenes no less!), the totally sincere public service announcement about AIDS awareness that nonetheless comes out of nowhere, the tasteless jokes about cannibalism: I can think of no other director who would attempt all these things in a single movie.