The success of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe led to mainstream appeal for a medium that didn’t always cross over. America isn’t the only place making cinematic superheroes though. Other countries created their own unique superheroes before and during Marvel’s film dominance. Judge Dredd is a British creation that already saw two films. Russia attempted to create its own cinematic super-team with GUARDIANS. Most noteworthy, Japan arguably created the most unusual superhero movie in Takashi Miike’s 2004 film, ZEBRAMAN.

The Plot

ZEBRAMAN tells the story of Shinichi Ichikawa, a miserable 3rd-grade teacher.  His boss yells at him, his wife cheats on him, his daughter dates older men, and bullies beat up his son. Therefore, Shinichi’s only happiness comes when he dresses up as Zebraman, who was the hero of a short lived TV series from his youth. At school, Shinichi bonds with Shinpei, a new student who is also a Zebraman fan, as a series of murders rock the city. He goes to meet Shinpei and show off his costume when he is attacked by a crab masked monster. To his surprise, Shinichi displays actual powers while fighting the monster off. The teacher then learns that his beloved TV series was a warning of an actual alien invasion, and now he must become Zebraman for real to save the world.

Why It Works

ZEBRAMAN sounds like an odd film, and it is. It has similarities to Japan’s Sentai programs (the basis for America’s POWER RANGERS). Despite this, the film holds comic book elements. First of all, the costume is a pure comic creation. The production utilized the black and white motif with a long flowing cape to create something that could fit in a comic book.

In addition, the story drives the comic comparisons home even more. Show Aikiawa, the actor who plays Shinichi, drives home the man’s unhappy life and daydreamer nature. Shinichi feels like he never completely grew up, which comic fans can relate to. He acts like an older Peter Parker who never got powers or gained real confidence. That performance makes Shinichi sympathetic to the audience. As a result, his time with Shinpei and his widowed mother are glimpses into the family he should have had. It also makes his transformation in Zebraman (which Aikiawa also plays perfectly) feel like his one shot to be a hero. In addition, comic fans relate to the central concept as well. Who among us hasn’t wanted to become our favorite hero?

READ: ZEBRAMAN stands out in an era of remakes and sequels.

Cultural Differences

ZEBRAMAN shows some cultural differences as well. The film holds to concepts of Japanese film and storytelling. Opposite to American comicbook films, the story starts very quietly. Therefore, there isn’t any early banter akin to Marvel movies. Shinichi’s relationship with Shinpei may seem odd to American viewers (who here are friends with their teacher?). Shinchi’s subsequent daydream about Shinpei’s mother as ZebraNurse is rather… well look below.

It’s a tad… different

Finally, the film never truly explains Shinichi’s powers either. The story implies belief is the reason he becomes Zebraman. That may be difficult for American viewers. The final fight has Zebraman becoming a giant Zebra of pure energy. It’s still a satisfying ending, but because of it, American viewers may be confused. The story works in spite of this because ZEBRAMAN, like many great superhero films, takes the material seriously, without too much focus on realism. Marvel films follow this procedure somewhat– films like THOR and ANT-MAN recognize the silly concepts but approach them with a straight face. DC films take their material too seriously in most cases. ZEBRAMAN’s appeal lies in giving a Marvel-type approach to an original hero.

Final Thoughts On ZEBRAMAN

In conclusion, ZEBRAMAN is an odd film, but it should be entertaining for comic fans. It has relatable characters, a unique story, and enough oddball antics to work. The cultural differences stand out but can help with the enjoyment of the film. Seek it out if you can, and watch with English subtitles (dubbing never works well).


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