Back in the Zone | Zeiram 2 (1994) Review

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Directed by Keita Amemiya
Starring Yûko Moriyama, Kunihiro Ida, Yukijirō Hotaru, Mizuho Yoshida

The eternal battle continues, or rather, concludes

With genre storytelling especially, there’s a useful distinction between episodes of a film series and those of a television show. The production gap is certainly greater in film, even over television seasons, but with it comes a broader sense of returning. When tuned right, this feeling can be profound, even melancholy or nostalgic: a reflection of life itself, ever churning forward in episodes of our own. So it is, too — profound — with Zeiram 2, a movie where sometimes characters teleport, and sometimes they don’t. This 1994 follow-up to our first Terminator-style alien mash captures the joy of sequels, being as excited in its presentation as I am watching it. It’s been three years since Iria, Teppei, Kamiya, and Bob escaped the Zone, and our reacclimation to their lives brings gentle revelations. Ever the aliens themselves, Teppei and Kamiya have not been ranting and raving about outer dimensions, discredited as quacks like Dr. Ian Malcolm between Jurassic Park and The Lost World. However, their friendship is feeling the slight strain of age, and this is first among the subtle departures Zeiram 2 takes from the original. I suppose what they have is indeed a friendship, and that also extends to Iria. With so much of their character left undefined as a result of their habitual strangeness, I never thought to apply a term like that. As soon as it materializes, it’s at stake.

Teppei is due to be married in a day, and Kamiya calls to say he won’t be there on time. Meanwhile, they both independently discover Iria is back in town, though apparently she never left. In keeping with either man’s elusive headspace, Kamiya’s reaction to Iria on footage he videotaped is “That woman has returned,” not “That harbinger of pure and unknowable terror has returned.” These are not the kinds of characters who suffer PTSD, who may not have even fully captured the traumatic stimuli in the first place. As far as they’re concerned, that Zone business was just a group hang with a new friend, if Kamiya’s expression is our indication. Although a womanizer (well, I think “womanizer” implies more actual interaction than videotaping the bare legs of passing women), there’s something so pure about his appreciation of Iria; he and Teppei both are her greatest fans. And while they both have women in their lives to return to, they want nothing more than to hang out again with their cool lady friend from outer space.

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The coolest, by the way. Iria’s had the most significant change between movies, sharpened by an artistic direction which prefers a greater confidence in look and manner. Most striking visually is the grey in her spiky tall hair, a suggestion of her maturation perhaps? She’s now legendary among the outlaw denizens of space, and travels with a subordinate, Fujikuro, in addition to Bob the AI, who’s shaken his artificial attitude. He even bends to her authority at one point. In combat, Iria exhibits a Bruce Lee affectation, moving only when she needs to and striking fear in opponents with a hard stare. Her first encounter is perfect, in which she squares off against three bandits who like to pose together. Without ruffling her red poncho, Iria dispatches them with snap kicks to the head while Fujikuro constitutes a sideline, being useless rather than actively detrimental for now. The three bandits escape and teleport away in a punctuating wide shot that highlights both their speed and smallness.

It’s these bandits who provide our envoy to Zeiram, and it’s an envoy I’m tempted to call “convoluted,” but that misses the mark. It’s simple, just nonsensical. The film opens with unknown but presumably alien narrators monitoring a weapons test in the desert. Humanoid figures in tight black, referred to as “androids,” scurry around until they’re blown up by the unseen weapon. Yes, the weapon is Zeiram. Strangely, the also unseen aliens send this Zeiram-bot to Earth as an assistant to Iria on her current job, the retrieval of a magical item from the bandits. They apparently got away with it even after Iria beat them up, so she teleports to a temple, and into a sequence that may just be the quintessence of the entire Zeiram project across multiple media.

If the design philosophy of the original Zeiram was Samuel Beckett, the sequel is all Evil Dead II, or Desperado, if you like: a semi-remake. The plot is eventually repeated, though some of the story beats are rearranged. And just as Evil Dead II doesn’t look like it was filmed on rocks, Zeiram 2 also sports upgrades. At the temple, we have an update on Zeiram’s original massacre, rendered last time in black-and-white. Iria confronts the bandits for round two, and then altogether too many space bounty hunters drop out of the sky as reinforcements. In this crowd, you’ll spot claws, gas masks, knight armor, tribal markings, martians, and at least two ladies. This is the Star Wars cantina sequence, alive with visions of worlds beyond. Iria holds them off with head turns in a very fun overhead shot, and this building drama toward all-out space opera with a distinctive edge is severed at the knees, necks, arms, and tentacles upon Zeiram’s arrival. His attacks are obscured by the editing, but these bounty hunters spray blood like the dancing fountains of Las Vegas.

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It’s interesting how even a slightly expanded cast can provide new characterizing details. In this case, Iria stands among the dead and expresses her distaste for the senseless killing. In the first film, she only killed Zeiram, so her opinion on lethal enforcement could’ve gone either way. Here, despite being menaced by these bounty hunters just moments earlier, she mentions de facto that some of them could be considered acquaintances. In the interstellar bounty hunter business, an ally one day is an enemy the next. Maybe it’s cheap that we’re being told to care after the fact, but I’m still too focused on the lost concept of Iria at the heart of her business: queen of the space bounty hunters. Though the Zeiram duology might be most easily classified as “monster movies,” thereby leading with the titular beast, in practice, their democratized focus finds preference in Iria. And not just in sympathy but intrigue. Indeed, they feel more like Iria Gaiden and Iria Gaiden 2: those times Iria fought Zeiram. It’s a wonder, then, why the anime produced the same year as Zeiram 2 and entitled Iria was also about — you guessed it — Zeiram.

I’m a Zeiram fan, no doubt. But monsters abound in science-fiction, whereas the space bounty hunter is constantly nonexistent. Most famously you have the ever ill-fated Fett clan of Star Wars, and then Samus Aran of Metroid whose “bounty hunter” profession was born of mistranslation. In between her xenocidal exploits, she does not in fact pursue humanoid targets, however uproariously outmatched they’d be against a dragon slayer. And let’s not forget the saga of Prey 2. Was this a bad idea, the space bounty hunter? I thought it was a good one. Granted, there are things like Cowboy Bebop, Strontium Dogs, and Killjoys, but then we have Iria, too busy with Zeiram and clones of Zeiram to expand her portfolio.

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After this glimpse into her possible worlds, we’re shuttled back to familiar haunts. The assistant, Zeiram, decides to go haywire after not being properly thanked — being punched may have also set off his temper — and his first move as reinstated villain is to envelope our cast in the Zone. This means Iria, Fujiko and his captive Teppei are trapped once again with an unkillable alien in another alternate reality equally as prone to collapse as the previous. The action proceeds in the usual style, eschewing a series of direct confrontations for logistics puzzles, though the film trades the river problem for a simpler location chase. We’re trying to get people in one place at one time, and just when the location of party A is fed to party B, Zeiram slides into frame or a gun barrel appears, and party A is forced to flee once again. This is where Fujikuro the wild card comes in.

Zeiram 2 broadens the anime’s retcon. Fujikuro is a lovable jerk in Iria: Zeiram the Animation, but here, he’s a bastard. Bob as mentioned is kinder this time and nature abhors a vacuum, so Fujikuro takes up the mantle with his backstabbing and his sawed-off shotgun. His presence once again raises the question of why Iria suffers such bad company on her interplanetary excursions, but she at least spares a moment to put him in his place when babbling treachery crosses the threshold to inconvenience. Not only does the expanded cast suggest Iria’s morality, it also affords her opportunity to be dominant. You can’t really kill an unkillable alien until the very end, and you can’t really beat up a sassy, disembodied AI, especially since an electrician can always reconnect the wires (got to love the unspoken shorthand, established throughout the first movie and put to immediate use in the sequel, that Kamiya’s job experience gives him deft hands with intergalactic technology). I won’t try to explain how Fujikuro ends up in a virtual reality prison inside Bob the AI, but that’s his last stop for now. I remember his reimagined anime counterpart having more depth — secretly compassionate, bashful front — but we’ll never know what this version had in store.

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In the time between Zeiram and Zeiram 2, I’d been expanding my Amemiya quest, and had a look at two of his Kamen Rider movies, Kamen Rider J and Kamen Rider ZO. Both are available on YouTube, and are each under 50 minutes — well worth a view. However, their influence on me left the initial clash between Iria and Zeiram here a bit wanting. A lot of long-distance, some fast-cutting, and single strikes with increasingly anti-gravity wirework; Iria can always shoot straight forward at Zeiram, no matter from where or in what direction she was previously moving. The later face-offs are more martial arts-heavy, even incorporating a sword and spear, but this encounter is all sparking guns and slick gadgets. While it seemed every object in the original film had a name and a history, a lot of what’s seen in Zeiram 2 simply happens, sometimes in the blink of an eye. I’m particularly fond of Iria’s laser-shields, which absorb a Zeiram blast but not its concussive power, so as Iria flies backwards, the shield is gone.

Zeiram himself (herself?) has shed the samurai aesthetic for something more Anubis-like. Two dog ears stand erect above an Uber-Jason mask, and every instance of texture on his body will at some point be a gun or a self-propelled shuriken, or maybe an orb that reimagines an adorable victim dog as an incompetent hellhound. The Zeiram xenomorph tongue has more to do, rescuing its body from being pinned to a wall at great height by a sword through the head, that old gag. In doing so, we learn something that I can safely say I never wanted to learn: the Zeiram tongue (in actuality, Zeiram, though credited as “Zeiram Feeler” in the English credits) has boobs now.

That’s not the usual sort of transformation I was expecting, and Zeiram 2 makes do with only the one, in contrast to the original. While we are treated to a hellish mutant breaking over to the Earth end of a teleporter, the many forms of Zeiram in the original speak to Amemiya’s crafty combination of an entire history of visual effects. We’ll see stop-motion spider creatures, gooey puppetry, suitmation fights, and CG sprinkled here and there as a garnish. Kamen Rider ZO, by the way, features a stop-motion arachnid monster whose startling visual imagination and rendering is let down only by the practically nonexistent sound design.

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Kamiya bounces into the Zone to assist Teppei and Iria out of a tricky situation involving a dragonfly robot and a trash compactor. This is paired with one of the few comedic instances to fall flat: Kamiya’s suit-up sequence, which has him zip up his fly amidst the equipping of gear — that rings false on the absurdity meter. I prefer the immediate next gag, when Kamiya shows up in time to disarm the landmine under Teppei’s foot. In one shot, he stands there in his heroic glory, and in the next, he simply walks in frame-right. It’s a subtler undercut, our redefining heroism along gender lines, a gag based in the language of cinema rather than clown shoes. With everyone now in the Zone, it’s just a matter of reuniting our two friendly bumblers and the queen of the space bounty hunters.

As Amemiya has taught me how to watch Zeiram, I feel transformed myself. While my experience with the original was one of constant surprise, this time I knew what was coming, and I welcomed it. By the climax, wherein Teppei and Kamiya scramble for the new teleporter device while Iria duels Zeiram in yet another tower, it feels like home, rounded out by the Zone collapse. The back half of Zeiram 2 sets itself apart from the original with the state of the characters. I hesitate to call it “development,” exactly, in the case of Teppei and Kamiya, but their bumbling shtick carries the weight of two increasingly distant friends now thrust together again. Midway in the film, during a Metal Gear codec scene, Iria offers to buy them a beer when this is all over, and I’m pinged by a slight melancholy. Damn it, it’s that moment in movies when the movie becomes an obstacle to its ideal version: I kind of just want to see this reunion, but Zeiram as usual keeps getting in the way. Is it possible I’m beginning to enjoy the absurdist comedy stylings and subtle character work of Amemiya more than his iconic design sense or the pose-friendly sentai martial arts? Whatever the answer, one movie isn’t enough to fully contain both, or all of what’s teased, but it does plenty — enough, in fact, for me to dream.

Our time together was short, Zeiram, but I’ll never forget it.

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As a note, the three-star ratings on both Zeiram movies have been agonizing. Quantitative measurement of art is contradictory, of course, and I fear that my 75% grade (not a C, remember) stems from an old movie-critic insecurity. There are some movies that, no matter their entertainment level, simply do not rate among the elite. Intelligent trash will always be trash, and that’s an embedded instinct I don’t like. I’m extremely tempted to upgrade both to three-and-a-half, but I think the three out of four stars serves its purpose here: a recommendation with caveats, or perhaps a warning. I love these movies, and if you’re also interested in what myself and my main man Amemiya care deeply about (women and rubber monster suits, the various clashing thereof), then you’ll be sold regardless my stars. For everyone else, maybe someone looking for a cool science-fiction movie in the way Ex Machina or Arrival are cool science-fiction movies, that’s not exactly on offer here, and those films would be rated 3.5 and 4 stars respectively, were I so inclined to indulge with eyes west. It’s my sincerest hope you fall in love with Zeiram as I did, because it was a wonderful journey, into and out of the Zone of a one-of-a-kind artist.

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