Tokyo Zombie. Say it out loud. The name alone tells you everything you need to know, doesn’t it? It’s set in Tokyo, and there are zombies, and whoosh there go the vast majority of people reading this off to update their NetFlix queues. They know what they like. But are they prepared for a movie that’s a mix of zombie horror, deadpan slapstick, environmental allegory and wrestling/sports picture clichés? Well, yeah, maybe they are, come to think of it.
What’s heartening is how they could have easily made a stupid, cheap little movie, but chose to aim higher. The film (an adaptation of Yusaku Hanakuma's manga) takes many of the sociological conceits buried (well, not all that deeply) in movies like Dawn / Day of the Dead, makes them into broad slapstick, and dresses up the results in cheerfully cheap-looking visuals. It’s not as out-and-out ridiculous as SARS Wars: Bangkok Zombie Crisis, but in some ways it’s actually funnier.
Zombie stars two of my favorite Japanese actors working today, Tadanobu Asano (Gojoe, Gohatto, Shark Skin Man, Last Life in the Universe, Away with Words, you name it) and Sho Aikawa (most every Takashi Miike movie) as a couple of doofuses who work in a fire-extinguisher factory and spend every spare moment they have practicing judo on each other. Mitsuo (Aikawa) is the slightly more clued-in of the two and fancies himself some kind of hectoring mentor to Fujio (Asano), the heavily Afro’ed and more thoroughly gormless of the pair. Their big dream is to go to Russia and compete in the wrestling tournaments there, and if you told them that sounded stupid they’d poke you in the snoot and tell you a man without dreams is worthless.
One day their boss chews them out, and they get angry and bop the big jerk over the head and kill him by mistake. Oops. No problem, though: all they have to do is dump him out on “Black Fuji”, the huge mountain of toxic waste out in the back of the building. It’s a dumping ground for people and trash of all kinds, from shrewish girlfriends to gangster rivals. The bad news is that the toxic waste is bringing the dead back to life, and it isn’t long before the streets of Tokyo are wall-to-wall with moaning, shuffling zombies craving human flesh. Mitsuo and Fujio say “screw this”, hop into their customized panel truck, and light out for the territories … but run into some, uh, difficulties along the way.
Years go by. The only part of Tokyo not overrun by the living dead is an arcology where the super-rich have retreated to wait out the zombiepocalypse. In fact, they’ve gone so far as to turn it into a variant of WWF theater, where hapless slaves are thrown at brain-munching zombies in a battle royale. Fujio, now married and with a kid, has somehow managed to survive all this by dint of his superior wrestling skills, but his manager’s threatening to dump him. Fujio, see, has the same problem with fighting that Tony Jaa’s character did in Ong-bak: he puts them all down with one punch, which makes for lousy showmanship.
This is all very funny, not just because of the incidents themselves but the solemn, wide-eyed, almost Kitanoesque approach the movie takes to the material. The two “heroes” are chronic bumblers, even worse off when they’re motivated to Do The Right Thing. At one point they swoop in to save a woman (who just happens to be robbing a convenience store); the way that scene is staged and played off generates one of the biggest laughs in the whole film. Equally deadpan-hilarious is a scene where some clean-cut but clueless kids mug an equally clean-cut but clueless salaryman. It plays out a bit like the scene in François Truffaut’s Pocket Money where two kids solemnly retell a dirty joke that neither of them gets.
The movie has points to make about man’s despoilment of nature (as in, we have to quit fouling our nest, duh!), but they’re all secondary to the laughs and sometimes embedded inside them. Example: after the zombies have destroyed everything, all the electricity is provided by slaves frantically squeezing hand-grip exercisers. But the real heart of the story comes from the relationship between Fujio and Mitsuo: the former is determined to live up to the promises he made to his friend, even when nobody else around him gives half a damn and the rest of the world is in ruins anyway. The last thing I expected from a movie like this was to be so charmed by it, and lo and behold I was.
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