“Z is for Zeiram”
Keita Amemiya was one of the directors of the show Kyõryû Sentai Zyuranger, a Japanese series which provided the initial basis (and much footage) for Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. But he is a bit of a Renaissance man, also working in animation, video games and illustration. His work seems to have a common sense of imagination, to the extent that it can be a bit overwhelming. A review of his first feature, Cyber Ninja – a title that, alone, give you a fairly idea of the location from where Amemiya is generally coming – hits the mark: “A feature length video game commercial, a much too-long advertisement for a Namco arcade game that never made its way into American pizza parlors.”
For our purposes here, however, we are concerned solely with Zeiram, his creation which spawned two live-action movies, a six-part anime adaptation, and I’m pretty damn sure a comic-book [though Google isn’t proving much help, and I’d have to go down and open my comic boxes to confirm that; since the last time they were cracked was, I kid you not, in 2000, I am reluctant to break the seal on them now]. As we’ll see the titular creature is very much the villain, but it easily qualifies here thanks to its kick-ass heroine. I had hoped to get round to watching the anime in time for this month’s installment, but I didn’t quite make it. Since baseball Opening Day and the subsequent summer go-slow is almost upon us, probably best if I cover the two movies now, and I’ll add the anime… hopefully in April, but no promises! [Update: got to it in May, so not too bad!]
- Zeiram + Zeiram 2
Zeiram and its sequel, Zeiram 2, both concern a creature which combines all the most unpleasant and lethal features of The Thing with The Terminator. It’s humanoid, at least in the number of functioning limbs, but its head appears almost mushroom shaped – though it’s hard to tell where Zeiram ends and its hat begins, for there’s a second face, embedded in the hat. This is capable of extending on a tentacle, to attack victims, taking in nourishment, and there’s evidence to suggest that it can absorb their DNA and use it to create monsters. Oh, and the rest of it is almost impossible to destroy.
However, trying to do exactly that is Iria (Moriyama), an interstellar bounty hunter, who has laid a trap to take Zeiram into an alternate, uninhabited dimension, in order to deal with him in a way that will pose no threat to the local population. However, she reckons without the arrival of electrical techs Kamiya (Hotaru) and Teppei (Ida), who have been dispatched by the power company to investigate the power-drain resulting from Iria’s tech. Through an unfortunate series of events, they end up in the alternate dimension with Zeiram, while Iria is largely stuck in our world, trying to keep them alive until she can fix her portal and get in there to help them.
The problems here are largely two-fold. Kamiya. And Teppei, There are few things less appealing than comic relief characters whose antics and mugging are supposed to be endearing or amusing, but fail miserably on both fronts. They bring very little to proceedings except for running time, and that’s a shame, because there is no shortage of bizarre inventiveness on view. And when the pair stop trying to be characters, shut the hell up, and simply team up with Iria to kick alien arse, it’s a lot better, because whatever they do to Zeiram, he/she/it just keeps mutating into another form and fighting back. You get the sense being fed through a wood-chipper would only be a minor inconvenience.
This also helps cover up Moriyama’s somewhat limited set of fighting skills. Admittedly, it’s possible she had to slow things down in order to fight a giant mushroom, but the hand-to-hand combat here is choreographed at about the speed of a Strauss waltz. She does have screen presence, however, and looks decent enough firing a gun. To a casual eye – that’d be my wife’s, wandering through the living-room – this could look like an episode of Amemiya’s Power Rangers, and it’s not surprising he would go on to direct some Kamen Rider films. But it’s too uneven to succeed: for every moment where you go, “Cool!”, there’s another where you’ll roll your eyes, or just go “Eh?”. For instance, the section where Zeiram squeeze out goo onto the ground, which grows into a half-man that has a burbling conversation with Zeiram, before getting its head stomped on. Altogether, now: eh?
The sequel, which came out three years later, restores the “i” in the title, which was inexplicably removed from the original for it US release by Fox Lorber. This installment starts off as if it’s going to go in some radically different directions, even if all the main players are back. Iria is seeking an ancient artifact called the Carmarite, and additionally, has a new assistant, but he turns out to be untrustworthy. Meanwhile, a shadowy group has succeeded in regenerating Zeiram as a cyborg warrior (which makes a lot more sense if you’ve seen the anime, and know its origins), bending its will to their needs and turning it into a weapon. While initially successfully, this works about as well as most plans usually do, and it’s not longer before Zeiram is much more a menace than an ally.
However, just when you think the film is going into new and interesting territory… Well, I’m not quite show how it happened, but before long we were back in more or less the same situation as the original. Blah blah irritating comic relief blah another dimension blak Iria unable to help (this time because she gets herself locked in a room), etc. You’re looking at something which borders on being a remake of the original, and unlike something like Terminator 2, which upped the ante significantly, while telling a largely similar story, there isn’t any real sense of progression or development. Much as before, things do get better when things move into action, and Zeiram is again, a shape-shifting nightmare that won’t stay dead. And this time, not even a cute dog which strays into proceedings is off the menu.
It also helps that, this time around, Moriyama has a better handle on the action angle. Previously, it was very much a case of kick, pause, punch, pause, move, but she is a good deal more fluid here, and makes for a more credible heroine as a result. However, her strength is still more in the “looking cool with a gun” department, because her punches still look like they might be troubled by a damp paper-bag. On balance, the sequel’s lack of invention is approximately balanced by the overall improvement in Iria’s character and the slightly better overall production values – it still looks like you could fund it from your bedside table change – and it’s as worth watching as the first part. Which would be “somewhat”: call both of them a rent (or more likely these days, a download), rather than a buy.
Dir: Keita Amemiya
Star: Yûko Moriyama, Mizuho Yoshida, Kunihiro Ida, Yukijirô Hotaru
- Iria – Zeiram the Animation
Though released several years later, this is a prequel to the two Zeiram movies, telling the story of the first encounter between Iria (Hisakawa, who was also Sailor Mercury) and Zeiram. At the time, she was an apprentice bounty-hunter, working alongside her brother Gren. They take a mission to rescue a VIP and recover the cargo from a stranded space-ship. However, once there, they discover the “cargo” is actually the alien Zeiram, which a corporation is interested in using as a weapon. The result leaves her brother apparently dead, and Iria now the target for the corporation, who want to hush up their thoroughly-dubious plan, by any means necessary. Fortunately, as well as her own skills, our heroine has the assistance of former rival bounty-hunter, Fujikuro (Chiva), endearing urchin Kei (Kanai), and Bob (Ikeda), a colleague whose consciousness has been turned into an AI.
The six-episode (about 25 mins per part, by the time you skip the opening and closing credits) series worked, for me, a little better than the live-action, simply because of the nature of animation: there’s no need for restraint. There were times in the movies where you could see where Amamiya wanted to, but has to restrain his imagination for budgetary reasons. Here, there’s close to a fully-fledged universe, with content which would likely be well beyond the budget of anyone not named James Cameron. There’s also a nice character arc for Iria: initially, she is probably too big for her boots, with an over-inflated sense of her own skills. When she meets Zeiran, she soon discovers she isn’t quite the cat’s whiskers, at least, not to the extent she thinks.
As with most animation of the time, it’s not going to be confused with Miyazaki, and it would be silly to expect otherwise. However, there remain weaknesses. Most obviously, and surprisingly – because it’s the same issue as in the live-action version – is the diversion of time to secondary characters, in particular Kei and sidekick, the latter of whom is there for one purpose only (too spoilerific to discuss in detail; I’d say it falls into the category of “surprising, but almost entirely pointless”). That’s true for much of the plot, which feels over-similar to the Aliens series, and at times, the conspiracy angles just seem to be there to fill in time, before we get to the inevitable final battle between Iria and Zeiram. It did generally keep my interest, overall; but I can see why it hasn’t exactly been remembered as a classic of the medium.
Dir: Tetsuro Amino
Star: (voice) Aya Hisakawa, Shigeru Chiba, Mika Kanai, Masaru Ikeda