As most avid zombie aficionados know, Japan has been eagerly reimagining the zombie genre (with varying success) for the past decade. Though Japanese zombie flicks certainly owe a debt of gratitude to the iconic works of Romero, they usually have more in common with The Evil Dead franchise than classic horror. It seems, through some cultural fluke, that Japanese filmmakers find zombies more comedic than terrifying. Sato Sakichi’s Tokyo Zombie (2005) offers a fun romp through a post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested Tokyo while chronicling the misadventures of jujitsu enthusiasts Fujio (Asano Tadanobu) and Mitsuo (Aikawa Sho). While the film has all the hallmarks of bizarre Japanese zombie-humor, it is also surprisingly full of tongue-in-cheek commentary on modern Japanese society.
The film’s most significant landmark, Black Fuji, is a monumentally large dump that looms over the Tokyo landscape. It exists to bury the trash and various wrong-doings committed by the city’s residents. Black Fuji is also infested with the problems of modern Japanese society – overbearing women, sexual harassment, physical and sexual abuse, pornography, perverts, and the general emasculation of Japanese men. There the audience finds the weak-willed マザコン (“mazacon‘ or 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. People accidentally kill one another, but are genuinely surprised to see that their violent outbursts cause harm. 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 others in trouble, either not wanting to get involved or assuming that someone else will come to the person’s aid. Unsurprisingly, when Black Fuji reaches its capacity to contain the toxic misdeeds of its citizens, it begins spewing them back out into the city…in the form of shambling, flesh-eating zombies. Though the zombies are laughably slow and stupid, they have no difficulty overrunning Tokyo’s equally dull and passive inhabitants. In this context, it’s clear that the zombies are merely the physical manifestation of a much deeper and more serious disease within society itself.
One of the more consistent themes is Tokyo Zombie’s representation of gender and the interaction between men and 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 Yoko who can kick Fujio through walls, and the gluttonous, blood-thirsty middle-aged women who control post-apocalyptic 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) and Fujio’s idea of survival rations are potato chips and soda. A champion fighter, he still can’t bring home enough money to support his nagging wife and child. Despite his skill at jujitsu, he is still less than a man. The Crown Prince is a retarded invalid toting a naval uniform and confined to a wheelchair (a not-so-subtle nod to WWII-era Japan). Eventually, the wealthy middle-aged women running Pyramid City are defeated by a Calpis-obsessed man wielding a Gatling gun that sprays human excrement. Oh boy.
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. It is also too inconsistent 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. Tokyo Zombie is primarily a love story between the two main characters. Fujio and Mitsuo’s relationship isn’t homosexual but is 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 accountable for one’s actions. This is something that many no doubt hope Japan’s younger generation will do as well. It’s not the best Japanese zombie film out there and has a tendency to be a bit boring at times. However, several fantastic actors and a unique approach to social commentary make Tokyo Zombie a worthwhile film.