Directed by Keita Amemiya
Starring Yûko Moriyama, Kunihiro Ida, Yukijirō Hotaru, Mizuho Yoshida
Zeiram is a film of details. Necessarily so; the big picture is murky, with its strange plot and stranger circumstances. The mystery of Iria: Zeiram the Animation, or at least, the mystery of its awkward title, terminates here, in a live-action Japanese science-fiction film from 1991. It’s directed by Keita Amemiya, and I’ve long wondered the how and why of this man. What market granted passage to the wellspring of his imagination? It remains a mystery to me even after watching the film, which offers no clear rationale for its existence and yet exists so loudly. All of its details, whether protagonist Iria’s braids which have cultural meaning or every gun and piece of armor that’s associated with a proper noun, seem to be shouting a franchise into being. On closer inspection however, these details are also shouting in a strange, wonderful language, and this might be its downfall. In total, there are two Zeiram features, a six-episode OVA (the Animation), and a PlayStation video game. As soon as it arrived, it was gone, and all follow-up questions went with the solar wind.
Japanese live-action science-fiction as a whole occupies a space between anime and Godzilla movies, both of which have built-in audiences. Who goes to see movies like Returner or Garm Wars: The Last Druid? And I don’t mean that rhetorically. If you’re the person who sees these movies, let me know, so we can gab. This is a space bathed in color grading and diffuse light, inhabited by rubber monsters and weightless CGI vehicles with intricate designs. Though films like Tokyo Gore Police and Hard Revenge Milly also belong to an extreme cinema niche, and Godzilla: Final Wars is a Godzilla movie, they’re a part of this strange pantheon, too. Sometimes it’s a classic like Oshii’s Avalon, sometimes it’s Zeiram. We don’t ask the same of both films, but they share a strong design sense and an indifference to audience. They are pure expressions, mixing tokusatsu with a touch of avant-garde.
With Zeiram, I can’t tell if Amemiya has seen far too many movies, or exactly none. His film seemingly borrows ideas and structure from The Terminator and Critters, not to mention body horror out of a Clive Barker dreamscape, and yet attends to the resulting pastiche with priorities so inexplicable they must comprise an agenda. It’s a chase movie, yet it stands still. It’s a fish-out-of-water scenario, yet we have very little sense of the water. If the film pushed further in any one of its several conflicting genres or tones, it might emerge with an identity singular enough to secure a stable international release to date. Instead, it finds its character within the pastiche. It is at once directed and omnidirectional.
Iria is an alien and a space bounty hunter who travels to modern-day Japan with her A.I. buddy Bob, Bob the A.I., to capture Zeiram, a deadly alien monster. As soon as this setup rings as familiar, it reveals itself as a problem of logistics, leading to a comedy of errors or perhaps an exercise in Murphy’s Law. In order to capture Zeiram without alerting the native Earth populace, Iria first traps him inside the Zone, an alternate reality accessed via teleporter. The problem is, the teleporter and the Zone are in two separate planes of reality, leaving the required devices vulnerable. Thus, the riddle of crossing a river with the fox, the chicken, and the bag of feed. The question isn’t about defeating Zeiram, but ensuring he and everyone else are in the right reality at the right time, and this is harder than it sounds.
As to the fox and chicken and bag of feed, there are three human faces among five characters: Iria the bounty hunter, Bob the A.I., Zeiram the alien, and then Kamiya and Teppei the electricians. Why are they electricians? Well, they have to be something. Between these characters are three different movies playing out simultaneously. Iria may be in a film called Zeiram, about a battle between woman and monster, but Zeiram is in a Ridley Scott film, rarely lensed without the halo of smokey blue light. Kamiya and Teppei? They’re in a stoner comedy. Or maybe a stoner tragedy.
Kamiya is introduced with pitch-perfect economy, in one of the single funniest shots I have ever seen in a movie:
This shot, while slightly mobile, does not change. Kamiya drifts closer to the camera, and Iria exits frame-right. Otherwise, it goes on like this for three beats too long. Kamiya does not call out to her, he just trails, zombie-like and gawping, an apple hesitantly outstretched. In a film where a gooey mutant version of this very man grows from a seed on the ground and is subsequently crushed to death in a sequence with no dialogue, this instance of abortive chivalry is the most awe-striking. It’s perfect. For all his big talk and brash discussion of ladies, his swing for the fences is a silent bunt.
Teppei has a slower-burn reveal. It’s tempting early on to pin him as the eventual love interest, so much more boyish and kinder than Kamiya, but he is far stranger. Upon his first encounter with the looming and unmistakably inhuman Zeiram, Teppei mistakes him for the client who called for electricians. What the hell is he seeing? What part of his brain recognizes the aim of a weapon but not the hostile intent of its very alien wielder? Partway into the film, Teppei produces an alien cockroach among Iria’s belongings and speculates with adorable fascination that it’s a food item. “Maybe she’s going to eat it.” Later in the film, he eats the cockroach. If this is supposed to be a joke, I have no grasp on the basis of the comedy despite my hysterical laughter throughout. And if you excise this cockroach bit from the film, there is zero disruption in the narrative. It can only be classified as a detail.
The river logistics leave Kamiya and Teppei stranded in the Zone with Zeiram but not Iria, and so begins the film’s second act, a staggeringly odd episode in science-fiction cinema that eschews the form for something like a Samuel Beckett play with Zeiram as Godot. There’s something terrifying and existential about being trapped in an alternate reality with an unkillable alien, but in keeping with this film’s scatter of priorities, the two men take to this challenge like Two Stooges. They sit down. They paw through Iria’s gadgets, her cockroaches. And they talk. They bicker. This is not a break in the action. I think this is the action, and surprisingly, there’s meaning here.
This Zone they’re trapped in may actually be a virtual reality, but I prefer to think of the alien technology as that much more advanced; this is an alternate universe. And true to its namesake, the space offers Kamiya opportunity to lament what could have been. At this very moment, friends await his arrival back home. However, we see that his imagined world is only a partial truth, that his singular friend awaits his arrival only for a free drink, and that he’s not so popular with the ladies. This, too, reads as a detail. It is disconnected from a larger context; neither character development nor social commentary on perhaps the isolation of Japanese men during an economic collapse. And it’s these two men who must take on Zeiram in Iria’s stead, our heroine on the other side of the river. Where she is strong and resourceful, their obliviousness gives way to fright in short order. These two men need a woman’s rescue.
Like with Darius in the FX show Atlanta, our understanding of Kamiya and Teppei as hapless astronauts soon morphs into a kinder interpretation: they may be slow in reaction to their surroundings, but they are then slow to judgment. In the absence of an expected sort of character development, they gradually adapt to their situation without shedding the bickering puerility. Bob the A.I. tells Kamiya the teleporter is damaged, and Kamiya doesn’t stop to ask why or what. He moves on to the next logical step, and helps solve the problem. How the learning took place in his brain is not one of the film’s details. This is simply a portrayal of men who are open to new ideas, new dynamics, for whom chivalry does not fit.
In the opposite corner is Zeiram, the Swiss Army knife of movie aliens. His equivalent to the xenomorph inner jaws doubles as the grabbing tongues of Tremors, and he can wield weapons and throw gadgets which explode into troll creatures that Iria promptly beats like piñatas. With the lumbering stride of a slasher villain, Zeiram is an all-around death machine, but he finds himself in the Zone. After massacring anonymous humanoids in claustrophobic black-and-white, he’s now stuck in a world empty of such fodder. No fleeing civilians to murder, no enemy soldiers or tanks to melt with lasers like his strange beast brethren. This is the cinematic equivalent of a fighting game training mode, and Zeiram becomes about as graceful as a player learning the controls. He is transformed, not in body but function, and so, too, is Zeiram, from cosmic horror to comedy-horror. In his pursuit of two shrieking morons, the death machine will be run over by a car , wounded by a thrown bicycle. He’ll shove a stack of beer crates over because he has nothing better to attack. The suit actor, Mizuho Yoshida, imbues the character with increasing agitation, and I’m sure it isn’t because his plan is going awry or his prey keeps getting away. It’s the indignity of being in the wrong genre.
It was better before, when he was facing off against Iria, this last logical consequence of the setup before everything spins apart. Their fighting is appealing, and this surprised me. Very important to my understanding of science-fiction aesthetics is the movie Resident Evil: Apocalypse, for all the rules it breaks. Human-shaped protagonist Alice does battle with giant man-monster Nemesis. How? Martial arts, of course. Unfortunately, this is not a peanut butter and chocolate situation. I like martial arts and I like rubber monster suits, but they simply do not mix, unless you want to call Ultraman’s chop move a martial art. However, it works in Zeiram, in part for its progression: when guns don’t work, karate probably will. And perhaps Iria is a character I actually like to see demonstrate her power, and that’s best done up-close and personal.
But this is a film where the escalating threat comes not from the villain’s infinite capabilities, but by glitches and when shit happens. A loose troll smashes the teleporter, a lucky shot frees Zeiram from his captivity in a crystal. Iria’s power, her authority, it’s established and secure, and so these goofball contrivances work to democratize the heroism without diluting her. Teppei asks what happened to Kamiya, also frozen in stasis, and Iria tells him very frankly that he was in her way, so she put him in a crystal. Because the temperaments of both men are so mild (Kamiya has a hot streak, but cools on a dime) there’s little judgment here. Iria’s character arc bends toward apology and the protection of these two men, so I think there’s supposed to be judgment, but with no strong male authority figure in sight, it feels more like a misunderstanding between cultures than a woman in the wrong. I mean, unless you ask Bob the A.I. The A is for Asshole. He’s the voice of constant dissent, challenging each of Iria’s choices and reminding her of the dire consequences (and likelihood) of failure. It’s not funny like the sloth electricians, but hits that same tenor of absurdism. Why does she keep him around if all he does is naysay? It’s another detail.
The movie ends with a group photo. No, not in a somber or ironic way, but rather like an amusement park ride or a family gathering. It did not take this long in the film for me to realize that Zeiram has been sensationally entertaining, but this final detail was a bright, round cherry. And all of our details add up to what is uniquely Zeiram; there is no other word to describe it. Kamiya remarks late in the film that Iria is “so cool,” providing me another realization: have I ever heard that spoken by a man about a woman in the action genre? This film asks, “What if men could be heroes, too?” And you know men. It may be stereotypical thinking, but they’re absentminded and not a little cowardly. In Zeiram, they’re granted redemption. With a woman’s help, they’re empowered, and this is my ultimate realization: Zeiram does not fully exist in our reality. It’s an emissary, and suddenly it all makes sense.
In an alternate universe of our own, the Zeiram “franchise” exists to stamp and sell toys, possibly a Zeiram with swappable bodies and an Iria with an array of tiny plastic weapons, all with proper nouns. The OVA is more than six episodes, the video game outlived the original PlayStation, the duology was a trilogy, and successive revivals marked new generations in filmmaking and fandom. That’s a more sensible universe. Zeiram is an irresistible formula, and the offbeat nature engenders otherwise conventional action/sci-fi with charm while also locating the normal within layers of strange: this woman is the hero, go from there. In our final alternate universe, Zeiram is part of an ongoing dialogue in film, where we approach masculinity on the foundation that action heroines are normal, even default. This, then, is the tragedy of Amemiya’s mysterious circumstances. The movie is not part of a dialogue, instead floating in that in-between space, our special pantheon. Amemiya’s outlook is too alien, but I hope he knows his universe is a better one.
Next up, Zeiram 2…