Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Takashi Miike
Running time: 115 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

What genre conventions hasn’t Takashi Miike bent, twisted or simply exploded? How about “Audition,” whose tender dream of May-December love segues into an S&M nightmare? How about “Katakurike no Kofuku (The Happiness of the Katakuris),” the horror musical with the singing and dancing zombies and the Claymation interludes? Or “Dead or Alive,” the gritty yakuza movie whose a climactic fight scene is straight out of a worlds-colliding Dragonball cartoon?

Now, in “Zebraman,” he’s tried his hand at a family movie, scripted by the red-hot Kankuro Kudo (“Go,” “Ping Pong”), about a nerdy teacher who becomes a costumed superhero of the Kamen Rider (Masked Rider) and Go Ranger (Five Rangers) type.

Going in, I imagined Miike messing with the minds of all those unsuspecting 10-year-olds and their dads. But instead of the mad, bad Miike of yore, who delighted in making his audience retch in the aisles, the Miike of “Zebraman” is more like the one who gave us the hit shocker “Chakushin Ari (One Missed Call)” — an entertainer for the mass audience who has reined in his wilder impulses, if not tamed them altogether.

“Zebraman” is also the 100th feature film of Sho Aikawa, the indefatigable star of straight-to-video gang epics, several made with Miike. Now in his 40s, Aikawa is a few kilos puffier and a few paces slower than the hard-staring, sandpapery-voiced punk of yesteryear. Like Miike, he is in the process of changing his image and moving upmarket. “Zebraman,” which plays to his strengths as a comedian and action star, is the ideal vehicle for his career make-over. It’s his “Kindergarten Cop.”

All of which may make “Zebraman” sound safe, bland and middle-of-the-road. Well, as advertised, you can take your kids to it. But it is also entertainingly quirky, in the Miike mode. Not a genre explosion — but with a few new bends and twists.

The aforementioned teacher is Ichikawa (Aikawa), who works at an elementary school in Yokohama in 2010. As the story begins, strange things are afoot. Huge crayfish are crawling about, hordes of seals are swimming up river and, somewhere nearby, a UFO has landed. The little green men who emerge from it can morph into slime — and use humans as hosts.

Meanwhile, Ichikawa sensei has his own problems: His students don’t respect him, his son is being bullied by his classmates, his teenage daughter is running wild and his wife is cheating on him. His escape is dressing up like Zebraman — a ’70s TV superhero who weekly saved the Earth from nefarious space aliens.

One night he ventures out in costume — and encounters a crablike creature (Akira Emoto) in the midst of a nefarious deed! Using hitherto unknown powers, Ichikawa defeats the foe — and wonders at what he has unleashed. He is also appalled by the unholy forces at large in Yokohama.

Soon after, he gets a new student — a smart, spunky, wheelchair-bound kid named Asano. He also meets Asano’s mother (Kyoka Suzuki), whose doctor husband recently committed suicide. The kid, it turns out, is a Zebraman fan — and shows Ichikawa a fan Web site that screens old episodes. How natsukashii (nostalgic)!

Meanwhile, a secret government task force is investigating suspicious alien activity. Two agents — the nerdy Segawa (Kimizono Kondo) and cool Oikawa (Atsuro Watabe) — discover that they have an unlikely ally: Ichikawa in his Zebraman guise, battling the aliens and their human hosts. Ichikawa has learned that the creatures are following a story line laid out in old Zebraman scripts, right down to the Yokohama setting — and only he can stop them! But to beat them decisively, he has to learn to fly . . .

In the typical regular-guy-turned-superhero story (“Spider-Man” being one example), the hero delights in his new super-powers — and starts to take them for granted. Not so Ichikawa, who is baffled by the changes that have come over him and frightened by the various foes, alien and human, he has to face.

In his heart of hearts, he knows he’s just another fantasist playing dress-up. TV is one thing — but real life is, well, real, with unpleasant consequences for humans who try to fly off bridges. Also, he’s not just protecting the important people in his life (including Asano’s lovely mom) — he needs their support. (His wife, though, is nowhere in the picture.)

Inevitably, he becomes a superhero for real, as the climactic confrontation with aliens looms. Though, by superhero standards, he’s thick around the middle, Aikawa rises manfully to the challenge — the fierce yakuza warrior glares out from behind the battered Zebraman mask.

Too bad his enemies aren’t scarier. The aliens are cute little guys — like beakers with faces and sloshy green liquid inside — while the humans they invade become generic zombies with standard-issue glowing eyes. The Miike of old would have added jolts of strangeness to the mix — say alien sex organs that whirl and pierce — but then he wasn’t trying to fill seats in suburban multiplexes. Is it too late to go back to the grindhouse?

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