Film Review: Big Man Japan
Imagine a Japan in which Godzilla and Gomera still exist…the catch is, people no longer care. Imagine also that to fight these oversized beasts, select men are chosen by the Monster Defense Bureau to be electrocuted into a larger-than-life size (don’t ask for the scientifics behind that). Imagine still that these fights are filmed and broadcast live on local TV—at roughly 2:00AM and with abysmally low ratings. Big Man Japan, the brain-child of writer-director Hitoshi Matsumoto (who also plays the title character), is a wonderfully absurdist frolic through a modern-day Japan still plagued with the oversized monsters of its kaiju heyday, with a cheeky self-aware quality that both sends up this old monster movie genre while also paying homage to it, and making our ne’er-do-well protagonist both an object of humor as well as one of sympathy.
Daisato (Matsumoto, one of Japan’s top comedians) is a nobody. A slacker who can’t keep a job or a wife, Daisato is neither a dynamic nor a terribly interesting character—except for his terrifically interesting line of work. Daisato is “Big Man Japan,” just one in a long line of men (including his father and grandfather) chosen to fight these alien monsters and defend Japan against their invasion and destruction. The film we watch is the interview footage taken of Daisato and the people in his life, as well as footage of his battles. The interviews with Daisato (or, “Big Sato”) are rather boring—lengthy, uncut shots of him stuck in one awkward pause after another, with nothing of interest to say. The narrator tries valiantly to make his interviews more compelling…but with little success. Big Sato, aside from getting big and fighting monsters, is actually kind of a loser, not to mention rather boring
Despite the fact that, in the beginning, the audience is somewhat encouraged to laugh at this hapless man, Big Sato becomes a sympathetic character as the film progresses. Caught in a completely absurd world in a profession that is widely disrespected, Sato is simply trying to make the best of it—to take care of his ailing, senile grandfather (“The Fourth” in his family’s line of Big Men) and to provide from a distance for his estranged daughter and philandering wife. The whole thing becomes almost heartbreaking—shlub that he is, he still tries his hardest, and gets no thanks from those he supports in his family and the many more citizens of Tokyo he protects (they only accuse him of wasting electricity and ruining their property, as told by the graffiti found on the walls outside of Sato’s home and over the electric plants he frequents to get “juiced”). The world is ready to write him off as a relic of a former era, one with no purpose in this modern world and little more than a social nuisance.
It wasn’t always so. Sato reflects on the days when there were many in the Big profession, hearkening back to a time when Big Men were praised and respected—here we see echoes of Disney/Pixar’s The Incredibles (which itself has faint echoes of Watchmen), when the superheroes were killed off or forced into hiding, and no longer were respected by the people they protected, complete with “newsreels” of the glory days. Yes, Big Sato is the last in a long, proud line of Big Men, but their era has come and it is he who is left fighting a battle that no one—not the public, not the government, not his family, not even his agent—even considers relevant anymore. The public is more eager to rise up and cheer against Big Sato at any given opportunity (a fight he loses brings in his highest ratings) than they are to support him.
There is a tinge of sadness here that comes with this sympathetic character falling victim to the shifting tides of public opinion, but this film is ultimately a comedy, loaded up with bizarre monsters and even more bizarre situations. A lengthy scene of “the ritual” (leading up to Sato’s transformation) is endcapped with numerous people involved in it calling it completely unnecessary (with the added irony of shooting a retake for the camera). The monsters themselves are a collection of absurdist delight, from the Strangling Monster with the comb-over to the Stink Monster who engages Sato in an absurdly normal conversation. While oftentimes the comedic tones of a foreign-language film are, well, lost in translation (so to speak), Big Man Japan offers an almost slapstick and also very dry humor that translates easily into any language, whether that be in Sato’s impassioned insistence that no sponsorship should be placed on his hips (cut to: his four-story hips, plastered in sponsorship) or in the perfectly-framed shot of him normal-sized standing in his Big-sized purple briefs awaiting transformation (a big purple tent with teeny-tiny legs).
The graphics are cheesy and bad, but this is also part of the film’s humor, playing off the comically bad special effects of the old kaiju monster movies. Big Man Japan is nothing if not excruciatingly self-aware, and it is this self-awareness which enables it to be an astute social commentary, a comedic homage of a classic cinematic genre, a deceptively clever mockumentary, and a fairly straightforward underdog tale…all at once.
Following in the tradition of classic mockumentaries like This is Spinal Tap and Best in Show (and really anything else from the Christopher Guest cannon), Big Man Japan takes such real-life absurdism and transcends it into this literally larger-than-life universe where the fantastic is simply mundane. Big Man Japan is a breath of fresh air in a cinematic climate that is too often stale. It is definitely…odd…but that’s what also makes it great. It is a freakishly funny triumph for first-time writer/director Matsumoto, on the level of writer-comedian Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat. In the end, you’ll root for Big Man…or, you won’t really be sure what you’re rooting for, but at least you’ll be having fun while doing it.
Big Man Japan plays Friday, June 26th-Sunday, July 12th at the Detroit Film Theatre. See website for details.