Originally published in underground manga anthology Ax in 1999, Yusaku Hanamura’s one-volume Tokyo Zombie is undoubtedly, and unashamedly, a cult manga. Drawn in a heta uma (‘bad but good’) style that forgoes the stylish character design and detailed background work found in mainstream series, it is 155 pages of gory violence, graphic sex, and truckloads of dark, surrealistic humour.
The tale follows two factory workers, Mitsuo (portrayed in the film by Sho Aikawa) and Fujio (Tadanobu Asano), as they attempt to survive in a Tokyo that has been overrun with zombies. The source of the virus is a place called ‘Dark Fuji’ – a mountain of garbage where the city’s inhabitants bury unwanted rubbish, industrial waste… and corpses. From there, it just gets weirder, incorporating (as Hanamura writes in his afterword) ‘…trucks, pro-wrestling, martial arts, factories, Mt. Fuji, pigs, intense battles, wealthy people, slaves, porno, gym teachers, a little dog, Calpis, tonkatsu, a prince, a professor, and so on…’
The film adaptation, directed by Sakichi Sato and released in 2005, includes most of these things, though the class-conscious pig uprising is sadly missing. Otherwise, aside from toning down the more graphic elements of the manga, the plot remains broadly faithful to its source material, with some adjustments and additions that become more pronounced as the film progresses.
Unfortunately, not one of these changes adds anything to the story, and many, if not all, serve to make the film significantly worse. For starters, the dog picked up by Mitsuo that becomes a sidekick to Fujio in the second half of the manga has, oddly, been transformed into a human woman (Yoko, played by Erika Okuda). While perhaps attempting to address the gender imbalance of the manga (where the only named female characters are a single background character who gets eaten by a zombie… and some pigs), this change somehow manages to take the female representation worse, as the only major female character is unsympathetic, aggressive, and annoying.
Perhaps worst of all is the addition of a blatant homophobia that is nowhere to be found in the source material. In the manga, a gym teacher seen burying a student’s body on Dark Fuji is simply violent, in the film he is shown to be sexually abusive towards his students – and gay. Later, the male coordinator of the zombie fights offers to use his power to ‘fix everything’ for Fujio if only he would kiss him. In both cases, characters who were not gay in the manga have been made so just to be presented as disgusting and predatory. It’s supposed to be humorous, but it’s just ugly.
But the film’s biggest problem is a much simpler one – it just isn’t very funny. While the odd moment may raise a smile of amusement, more often than not the attempts at humour fall flat. Perhaps this is down to the filmmakers making little effort to create humour, instead simply pulling the zany situations from the manga and hoping they have the same comedic effect on screen – without considering the difference in how on-screen comedy works. The manga is fun because of its ridiculousness, but in the movie the same moments fail to reach the level of over-the-top wackiness that made the source material funny. Essentially, Tokyo Zombie the movie goes through the motions of the manga’s plot without capturing the tone that is so fundamental to the story. With all its surreal humour, an adaption of Hanamura’s manga should be something of an X-rated Mighty Boosh; instead, Sato’s version tries to be a buddy movie, a curious choice which falls flat in such an outlandish story. There are a few moments where the manga’s offbeat brand of humour appears – most notably in the stylised ending scene – but these are few and far between, and the tone is further muddied by the misguided attempt at sincerity in moments such as Fujio and Mitsuo’s climactic fight, which comes complete with sombre acoustic guitar.
This is not to say the film is without redeeming features: there is a stylish animated interlude explaining events that happen in the mid-film time jump; and Fujio makes a likeable lead, silly and unintelligent but largely endearing. Even so, more humour could have been made from the strange contrast between Fujio’s pleasant demeanour and his not-insignificant capacity for violence.
Unfunny, homophobic, and with a tendency to drag in a way that an adaptation of a 155-page comic has no excuse for, it is hard to find any reason to recommend Tokyo Zombie to anyone. And that is a shame, considering the manga holds the potential for a truly bizarre and hilarious horror-comedy capable of breaking through the language barrier and entertaining audiences worldwide. But that film was never made, and the movie we have been given is one that deserves the international obscurity in which it currently languishes.
Tokyo Zombie is available now on DVD.