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NEW YORK — Representing a true change of pace from Takashi Miike’s usual brand of ultraviolent horror and yakuza films, “Zebraman” is a family-friendly fantasy that finds the director working in an uncharacteristically gentle mood. This sweet tale of a mild-mannered school teacher-turned-superhero was made in 2004 but is only now receiving a U.S. theatrical release. It recently premiered at New York’s Pioneer Theater.
The central character is Shinichi (Sho Aikawa), whose personal and professional lives are equally depressing. Not respected at the school where he works, he also has a cheating wife, a daughter who turns tricks and a son who gets bullied.
To relieve his frustrations, Shinichi frequently dons a homemade Zebraman suit, modeled after one worn by the title character of a failed cult television that he loved as a boy. Prowling around town while wearing it one late night, he encounters some space aliens, who unbeknown to the general population — but not to the government, which has sent some “Men in Black”-style agents after them — are trying to take over the planet.
Voluntarily assuming the role of protector of the city, Shinichi begins a one-man crusade against the disguised creatures, finding to his astonishment that he is beginning to develop actual Zebraman superpowers in the process. Meanwhile, he has begun to bond with a disabled student at his school and, more importantly, the boy’s beautiful mother.
The film is seriously overstuffed with subplots and incidents (but hey, so are the “Spider-Man” movies), and the director is unable to sustain the thin, whimsical premise for the duration of the film’s nearly two-hour running time. But it also has an undeniable charm, and the kitschy, CGI-enhanced special effects add greatly to the amusement factor.
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