Horror films here have traditionally featured vengeful female ghosts, but Japanese filmmakers do also take cues from Hollywood, where zombies have long flourished since George Romero’s seminal “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) and “Dawn of the Dead” (1978). Even so, Japanese zombie films, such as Hiroshi Shinagawa’s “Z Island” (“Z Airando,” 2015) and Takashi Miike’s “Yakuza Apocalypse” (“Gokudo Daisenso,” 2015), have trouble taking the undead seriously.
“I Am a Hero” (“Ai Amu a Hiro”), Shinsuke Sato’s disaster thriller based on Kengo Hanazawa’s hit manga of the same name, is a rare local film that uses zombies for scares, not punch lines. In fact, its lurching menaces do their job so hair-raisingly well that the film arrives in the theaters with an R-15 rating, meaning junior high school kids — usually a prime target audience for manga adaptations — can’t see it.
To fans of Romero’s masterworks, if not their many imitators, “I Am a Hero” will look derivative, though its full-bore zombie action may win their grudging admiration. And compared to the many so-called thrillers in Japan that offer only the appearance of action, with blood and bodies airbrushed out, “I Am a Hero” is the real unironic deal.
The title hero is Hideo Suzuki (Yo Oizumi), a 35-year-old assistant to a famous manga artist. After spending his day in artistic drudgery or unsuccessfully pitching his own manga to bored editors, Suzuki returns home to his irascible girlfriend, Tekko (Nana Katase), who is thoroughly fed up with his long-delayed dreams. Manga success, she tells him, is only for “special people,” which the wimpy Hideo manifestly is not.
Then everything falls apart. A new virus rapidly transforms humans into zombie-like creatures called ZQN (pronounced zokyun) that are suddenly on the news, in the streets — everywhere. Suzuki, slow on the uptake, is nearly eaten alive before he flees for his life. Unlike everyone else in the crowd, he has a shotgun, which he has never fired at a living being, let alone an undead one. His weapon is a hobby, like a knife collection never used to carve a roast.
By a stroke of fate, as he gets a cab out of Tokyo, Suzuki finds himself next to a plucky teenage girl, Hiromi (Kasumi Arimura). Arriving at an abandoned shopping mall after an eventful journey, this pair encounters Yabu (Masami Nagasawa), a combat-hardened former nurse. She and other survivors have holed up on the mall roof, momentarily safe from the ZQN hordes. But food supplies are in a ZQN-infested basement, and Hiromi, having been bitten by a toothless baby ZQN, is now half ZQN herself —not dangerous, but barely alive.
By now, “Dawn of the Dead” fans may be thinking “I Am a Hero” is a rip-off, right down to its shopping-mall setting, but the film gives fresh, localized touches to familiar tropes. One is a “super ZQN” — a rangy giant with a bald, bashed-in skull, who is able to leap to incredible heights. Cartoony? Yes, but consider the source material.
Also odd, by Hollywood genre standards, is Suzuki, who takes an inordinately long time to find the warrior within. In contrast to characters on the hit U.S. show “Walking Dead,” who kill zombies like roaches, Suzuki can’t pull the trigger on anything, even when it’s hell bent on having his brains for lunch. His pacifism, in Japanese movie terms, signals his baseline decency, but in a zombie holocaust situation, it makes him almost laughably easy meat.
Oizumi, who often plays hyper comic types, displays a broader range than usual, from quivering fear to implacable (if late-blooming) determination. And, as the trailer makes blazingly clear, he finally shows he knows how to use that shotgun.
Call “I Am a Hero” a copy if you will — but the title is not false advertising.