"Zebraman" is a story of a caped crusader who saves the world from aliens.

Billed as “the first Takashi Miike film the whole family can enjoy,” “Zebraman” sets aside the gore of this prolific young director’s horror, gangster and slasher films to embrace, Tarantino-like, a story of a caped crusader who saves the world from aliens. The special effects are quality fun, the humor only a little Japanese, and the story boasts the offbeat genre twists Miike lovers clamber for. Whether this entertaining, madcap comic book spoof will be a crossover picture outside Asia remains to be seen, though Miike’s army of fans will want to give it a look.

Grade-school teacher Shinichi (Show Aikawa) is a washout. His pupils laugh at him and bully his son, his wife’s having an affair and his daughter prostitutes herself after school. His only comfort is going home and putting on his paper-mache Zebraman costume, modeled after a TV superhero show from his youth (yanked after 6 episodes.)

Prowling around town one night in costume, he stumbles across strange beings who melt into jello when hit. It’s an alien invasion, known to the Japanese government but hushed up so the public won’t become alarmed. For some reason the blobs, who take human form, are killing young girls. Shinichi discovers he has the power to sense out these creatures, because the hair on his neck stands up like a zebra’s mane whenever they’re around. He begins clumsily to defend the town.

There are a lot of subplots to keep things moving. Shinichi bonds with a young transfer student in a wheelchair, Asano, and soon falls for the boy’s beautiful mom Kana (Kyoka Suzuki). Bumbling as he is, things proceed slowly. Meanwhile the Japanese defense department sends two undercover agents to route the aliens.

The principal in Shinichi’s school also seems to know something. His role in the whole Zebraman story is revealed in the closing scenes, as the alien blobs unite into one giant quivering mass on the roof of the school, and Shinichi is magically transformed into a real super-hero.

Genre spoof by top Japanese scripter Kankuro Kudo gets quite wild at times, inventing alien-possessed children wielding baseball bats, an eggplant attack and a costumed nemesis called Crabman. The popular actor Aikawa, appearing here in his 100th film in 13 years, is much more a bashful, unassuming Clark Kent than “Unbreakable’s” Bruce Willis, though he has the latter’s need to be a hero to his son (and to Asano).

Misako Saka’s splendidly kitchy CGI effects reach their apotheosis in a cathartic final explosion, to the tune of Kozy Endo’s electronic disco music.

Zebraman

Japan

Production

A Toei Co. production. (International sales: Toei Co., Tokyo.) Produced by Kumi Fukuchi, Shigeyuki Endo. Executive producers, Mitsuru Kurosawa, Takashi Hirano. Co-producers, Makoto Okada, Tsuguo Hattori. Directed by Takashi Miike. Screenplay, Kankuro Kudo.

Crew

Camera (color), Kaz Tanaka; editor, Taiji Shimamura; music, Kozy Endo; production designer, Akira Sakamoto; sound (Dolby Digital), Yoshiya Obara; CGI producer, Misako Saka. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (main program), Jan. 26, 2004. Running time: 111 MIN.

With

Shinichi/Zebraman - Show Aikawa Kana - Kyoka Suzuki
With: Atsuro Watabe, Teruyoshi Uchimura, Yui Ichikawa, Kouen Kondo, Naoki Yasukouchi, Makiko Watanabe.

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