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Helen McCarthy takes on Japan’s walking dead in Tokyo Zombie.

Tokyo ZombieTadanobu Asano is a magnificent actor, the Toshiro Mifune of his generation. He works with great directors – Takashi Miike, Nagisa Oshima, Takeshi Kitano. He can play comedy and tragedy, is comfortable in physical and contemplative roles. He’s even making his mark on screens outside his own country, with roles in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor and Peter Berg’s upcoming Battleship.

Like Mifune’s, Asano’s career embraces both serious cinema and the kind often described as disposable. Tokyo Zombie falls into the second category, but don’t pass it by: it’s disposable, yes; flawed, definitely; enjoyable, massively.

Based on the manga by Yusaku Hanakuma, Tokyo Zombie is the story of two downtrodden workers with a passion for ju-jitsu.  Asano shows little of the effortless cool that led Spanish newspaper El Mundo to label him “Johnny Depp’s Japanese cousin” – he’s an Afro-haired dork named Fujio. His bald co-worker Mitsuo (actor-composer Show Aikawa) trains him to fight. They get more fight practice than they bargained for when an army of the undead shambles from a toxic waste dump to rip Japanese society apart.

The buddy-movie beginning looks set to segue into a road movie, but a twist separates the odd couple and pushes us straight into post-apocalyptic territory via an animated interlude. Five years down the line, Tokyo is a feudal nightmare where rich survivors live in protected enclaves, enslaving the poor and forcing them to fight captive zombies for entertainment. Fujio uses the skills his old friend taught him to stay alive and keep his new family safe, but there’s a Mitsuo-shaped gap in his life. The relationship is so brilliantly written and acted that the interplay between the two characters goes on, despite the absence of one of them for a good chunk of the film.

The brilliance is uneven. The gags veer from inspired to gross. The mix of live action, animation, screwball humour and lo-fi sfx is choppy and occasionally annoying. Yet the movie’s heart, the relationship between two likeable losers, is strong and solid. Asano and Aikawa create humanity out of absurdity, credibility out of confusion. Despite the zombie apocalypse, the film has more comedy than gore, because the zombie motif is just an excuse.

Tokyo Zombie is a bleak allegory of modern Japan, where whining, emasculated men and disengaged youth grovel to overbearing women old and young, a gerontocracy where the ultimate symbol of the State is a helpless retard. The women in the movie, dead or alive, are aggressive, unsentimental and terrifyingly adult. The men are passive, infantile and fixated on each other.

This is not a horror movie. It’s a film about growing up, embracing responsibility and accepting that you can’t outrun, or fight off, death without also losing the things that make life worth living – friendship, love and the ability to choose, if not your own path, then at least the way you walk it. Tokyo Zombie delivers a lot of fun, but at its heart is a big question: what happens next for Japan?

Tokyo Zombie is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.

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