Judge Adam Arseneau is a dead head.
Premium of the dead.
If Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright were born Japanese, it's entirely possible they'd have made something like Tokyo Zombie instead of Shaun of the Dead. It should be noted the only two cultures on earth bizarre enough to purposefully decimate their civilizations with combinations of slackers and zombies are the British and the Japanese.
Facts of the Case
Fujio (Tadanobu Asano, Ichi The Killer) and Mitsuo (Sho Aikawa, Gozu) are two homeless slackers and jujitsu champion wannabes who train endlessly for lack of anything else productive in their lives. After accidentally murdering their boss, the two trot his body off to the place where Tokyo hides its dirty secrets: Black Fuji, a trash pile so foul and large that it resembles the eponymous mountain. Here, people dump their dead, or their toxic waste, or whatever dirty secret needs burying.
Unfortunately for Fujio and Mitsuo, Black Fuji is set to erupt…with zombies! When an army of the undead emerges from the trash and wreaks havoc across the city, the two boneheads hop in their van and go from convenience store to convenience store, looking for food and cigarettes. Can their jujitsu skills stave off a zombie apocalypse?
Japanese comedies are an acquired taste for those not born in Japan. Many are Frankenstein-esque amalgamations, a perplexing blend of pop cultural satire and Laurel and Hardy slapstick. Take, for example, Tokyo Zombie; it bears many similarities to a certain British comedy about zombies, but eschews comparison to said film through sheer cultural weirdness. Imagine if in the middle of Waiting for Godot, zombies showed up, and by the end of the story, it was like Land of the Dead, but in Japanese. Also, Buster Keaton was in it. This is what I'm talking about. Does your head hurt yet?
Despite the cultural confusion, this is a hilariously random and irreverent comedy (for those prepared for it) starring two of Japan's finest actors playing slapstick characters chased cross-country by zombies. Any film that sticks Sho Aikawa in a hilariously bad bald cap and Tadanobu Asano in a gigantic afro wig automatically gets a passing grade from this Judge. The comedy is very Japanese, very odd to North American eyes, with awkward long takes, bizarrely overacted pantomimes of horror and surprise, brutish physical comedy (like running into walls for no reason), and, when necessary, the complete suspension of all laws of physics for the sake of a gag. Think Looney Tunes logic here, and you'll get it; like the woman who gets her head kicked off, but still manages to call out things as her head flies impossibly high into the sky. It's funny, so they worked it in. No further explanation required.
So, and we're only going to make this warning once: zombie fans should stay away from Tokyo Zombie. Don't let the presence of zombies trick you into thinking this film is anything other than a surreal Japanese adaptation of a manga. No horror junkie will find satisfaction with the cartoonish logic that applies here. Humor is the only rule in town, and if it suits the need of the filmmaker, they'll happily trash every zombie cliché in the book for a laugh. George Romero must be turning in his grave—or his bed, depending on the time zone conversion. Fans of Japanese-style comedy will find delight here, however, because Tokyo Zombie is riotously hilarious, bordering on the nonsensical. You have everything you could ever want: top-tier Japanese acting talent acting goofy, hordes of lumbering dead, apocalyptic chaos and disorder, and jujitsu fighting. How can you lose?
Oddly enough, this is a film that gets worse the longer it rolls. Tokyo Zombie starts off fresh and fun, with a delightfully sardonic way of introducing zombies into the world: a trash pile so big and so full of dead bodies and waste the locals call it Black Fuji, it was only a matter of time before some industrial chemical reanimated the dead. Our two hapless slackers take a van and head north (or south) to escape the zombies, stopping at the occasional convenience store to snack up. It's like an esoteric road movie, but with the living dead on their heels. By the end of the film, things have shifted dramatically into something a bit more apocalyptic and a bit more Orwellian, and the comedic edge drops away. Tokyo Zombie remains good, just unbalanced, as if another director suddenly took over. More on this later.
Visually, the DVD is clean, with little compression artifacts or edge issues to be found. Black levels are weak, as the film exhibits a washed-out color palate that mutes the tones and makes everything look yellowish, almost sepia; stylish to be sure, but not exactly reference quality. There is a pervasive softness throughout all indoor sequences, but outdoor sequences are crisp and well-articulated.
As for audio, things get more contentious. Manga Video has been "kind" enough to include a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround dub in English, and delegated the native Japanese track to a simple stereo presentation. If I have a pet peeve in the world of DVD, this is it. This happens a lot on North American releases of anime, and I shouldn't be surprised to see it here, given who is releasing the DVD. The dub is ridiculous sounding and should be avoided at all costs. Luckily, it doesn't even sound that particularly well-executed, failing to make impressive use of the rear channels and low-end. The stereo track feels think and weak in comparison, but at least it's in Japanese. English subtitles are included and translate the dialogue well.
Extras are solid for a single-disc release. We get a making-of featurette, actor interviews, trailers, a cast and crew Q&A session, footage of the actors at an in-store promotional appearance and some teasers. This is about the level of offering I would expect from a single-disc release of a Japanese zombie film, given the track record of Japanese zombie films currently available on DVD.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Tokyo Zombie suffers heavily from being chained to its source material. About halfway through the film, the story jumps ahead into what essentially could have constituted a separate sequel—spoiler alert—five years forward into the narrative where the ultra-rich have enslaved the poor to serve their entertainment needs. The two opposing halves make for an interesting viewing experience, but cough up a narrative disaster. By the end, we reconcile the parts in a satisfactory manner and payoffs of long-forgotten jokes, but Tokyo Zombie would have been stronger as a film had they stuck to one element of the story and perfected it, rather than cramming too many manga plotlines into a live-action film.
Tokyo Zombie is too bizarre, too hilarious, and too culturally alien to be anything other than a must-see for fans of Japanese cinema. This one will be worth the price of admission, if only to see two mega-stars being chased by zombies in ridiculous wigs. For fans looking for a George Romero-style fix, look elsewhere. While the film is zany and hilarious in its own peculiar Japanese way, its comedy style and zombie approach will not satisfy those looking for gore and terror.
Not guilty by way of zombie insanity.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Manga Video
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