Japanese Film Review #14: Sato Sakichi’s TOKYO ZOMBIE (2005)

Tokyo Zombie

Imagine George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead fused with Simon Pegg’s Shaun of the Dead and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what this movie is about. However, based on the manga by Hanakuma Yusaku and written and directed by Sato Sakichi (the man responsible for the Ichi the Killer adaptation), Tokyo Zombie is inescapably Japanese.

Covered in trash...so how is this different from Mt. Fuji?

Asano Tabanobu plays Fujio, the afro-toting protégé of Mitsuo, played by Aikawa Sho (a drastically different role from his typical yakuza/tough guy image). The two blue-collar workers spend their time practicing jujitsu until an unfortunate incident involving a fire-extinguisher and their boss’s toupee-clad head lead them to Black Fuji – a monumentally large dump that looms over the center of Tokyo and where people go to toss their trash or hide various wrong-doings. However, it seems that Black Fuji has reached its capacity to contain the toxic misdeeds of the citizens of Tokyo and begins spewing them back out into the city…in the form of shambling, flesh-eating zombies. According to the movie, zombies must devour human flesh or else suffer hellish pain. Fujio and Mitsuo decide to go north and escape to Russia because, for whatever bizarre reason, it represents some abstract ideal of manliness to them. During a supply stop, Mitsuo is bitten by a zombie as he rescues Yoko (Okuda Erika) and throws himself into a river.

Fast forward five years and Tokyo, completely overrun by zombies, has died. A few wealthy survivors have cordoned off a small area of the city and have erected a large pyramid, where they live and entertain themselves by rounding up lower-class (IE poor) survivors and forcing them to fight zombies in a gladiator stadium. Fujio has married Yoko and become a champion zombie fighter. Unfortunately, he isn’t very popular because he finishes off the zombies too quickly and thus can’t bring home enough money to support his family. Eventually, Fujio is forced to face off with his best friend and mentor.

Tokyo Zombie isn’t consistent enough to provide clear, well-focused social commentary. In fact, it’s doubtful that constructing a highly-refined allegory on Japanese society was one of Sato Sakichi’s primary goals. Still, the film is full of tongue-in-cheek references to modern Japan and these moments are the source of much of Tokyo Zombie’s humor.

Trapped between a rock and a hard place

The film’s most significant landmark, Black Fuji, exists to bury the crimes committed by the residents of Tokyo and is infested with the problems of modern Japanese society – overbearing women, sexual harassment, abuse, homosexuality (not that homosexuality is a social ailment), pornography, perverts, and the general emasculation of Japanese men (who are all generally whiny bitches in this movie). There the audience finds the weak-willedマザコン (Mother complex…the so-called ‘momma’s boy) forced by his domineering girlfriend to bury his mother alive while the two continue to squabble and nag him. Fujio runs into his old homeroom teacher (who may or may not have raped him), frantically trying to bury the body of one of his students. Unsurprisingly, it is Black Fuji that spews out the monsters who destroy Tokyo.

The schoolgirl and pervert...Japan's two trademarks

However, even before the zombies overrun the city, Sato shows use that Tokyo is already hopelessly decayed. People accidentally kill one another, but are genuinely surprised to see that their violent outbursts harm people. Students try to mug their teachers with small knives and perverts look up the skirts of young girls. People tend to turn away when they see other people in trouble, either not wanting to get involved or assuming that someone else will come to the person’s aid. The zombies are extremely slow and stupid, laughably so, but have no difficulty overrunning the equally dull and passive inhabitants of Tokyo.

Tennou heika BANZAI!

Even the zombie apocalypse doesn’t bring about drastic changes to Japanese society. The wealthy inhabitants of the giant pyramid exploit lower-class citizens, either using them to generate the aptly named ‘Squeeze Energy’ that powers the city or watching them get eaten by zombies for entertainment. A champion fighter, Fujio still can’t bring home enough money to support his nagging wife and child…even though his skill at jujitsu has improved, he is still less than a man. The Crown Prince is a retarded invalid toting a naval uniform and pushed around in a wheelchair.

The vagina devours all...

One of the more consistent themes is Tokyo Zombie’s representation of women. In the film, women are infinitely more aggressive and strong-willed than men – the overbearing mother and girlfriend, the naked female zombie with a taste for penises, the crass and nagging Yoko who can kick Fujio through walls, and the gluttonous, blood-thirsty middle-aged women who control the pyramid-city. In contrast, the men act infantile and vaguely homosexual (though who can blame them when they are surrounded by such awful women). Mitsuo and Fujio do everything together (wrestle, burying their boss’s body, and sleep next to one another), Fujio’s idea of survival rations are potato chips and soda, the announcer for the zombie-fights likes to cuddle up and hug Fujio (his ‘shining star’), and the wealthy middle-aged women are eventually defeated by a Calpis-obsessed man wielding a Gatling gun that sprays human excrement.

The revolutionary piss gun...works every time.

Despite being written and directed by Sato Sakichi, Tokyo Zombie is not a horror movie. Fans looking to relive the blood-drenched and violently orgasmic Ichi the Killer should turn back now. The bare-bones, campy nature of the special effects makeup and CGI almost bring Tokyo Zombie into the realm of genre spoof. While the movie does toy with zombie movie traditions, it’s a bit too divorced from the zombie genre to be full-fledged homage like Shaun of the Dead. Tokyo Zombie is primarily a love story between the two main characters, the ‘afro guy’ and the ‘bald guy.’ Their relationship isn’t homosexual (or sexual in any way) but it’s obviously more than just friendship or a master-apprentice relationship. More significantly, Tokyo Zombie is a film about growing up and becoming a man – assertive, responsible, independent and, most importantly, accountable for one’s actions. Eventually, Fujio grows out of his childish ways and heads off to Russia with his family to achieve his dream…whatever that actually is.

An interesting predicatment

While it might fall into the ‘heta-uma’ category (for those of you who dislike Tokyo-ben, let’s say “下手すぎて、逆におもしろい”), Tokyo Zombie is a simple, refreshing take on the zombie genre. It’s a lighthearted movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously…but also contains enough fantastic actors and social references to satisfy the most avid Nipponophile.

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Comments (5)

  1. broadappeal

    Can they make money out of this?….geez..I’m in wrong business..
    The word “uma-heta” is a good way to describe it. Umezu Kazuo seems fit right in the place.
    Btw, “uma-heta” is Shibuya-ben from Gyaru-go category…I think.

    March 1, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      If Shibuya is in Tokyo, does that make it Tokyo-ben? I have no idea…

      Zombie movies are a weird genre of cinema. These movies don’t really seem interested in being ‘good films,’ they’re just supposed to be ridiculous. Movies by George A. Romero and The Evil Dead trilogy are good examples of this kind of movie and were popular from the 1970s to the 1990s in America. It looks like Japan has been trying to reinvent the zombie/action/gore genre (with varying success) for the past 10-15 years.

      March 1, 2010
  2. ben

    i abslulutly loved Asano Tabanobu as khakihara in ichi the killer

    March 3, 2010
    • constantineintokyo

      I admit that I am biased when it comes to Asano Tadanobu…I am in love with him, so I like pretty much every movie he does. =P

      March 3, 2010
  3. sd

    Thanks for your take on this film. Personally I thought it was boring and poorly made and very not funny but I now see some aspects that I missed because frankly I was so bored. At the end of the day I dont think this film satisfies anybody from zombie lovers to oddball comedy fans.

    February 22, 2011

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