Big Man Japan
directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto
(Magnolia, 2009)

Big Man Japan, a.k.a. Dai-Nipponjin, is a mockumentary about a Japanese superhero, played by comedian and director Hitoshi Matsumoto. This movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 and has finally found its way here.

Masaru Daisato, played by Matsumoto, is the heir to an unusual family tradition. Descended from a long line of superheroes, he uses huge doses of electricity to grow into a 50-foot-tall hero who fights super-sized monsters. It's not the sweet gig it sounds like, though. Whereas Daisato's father and grandfather were practically worshipped, Daisato himself is living in a much more cynical world where people taunt him, his wife no longer speaks to him or wants him to have contact with their daughter, his home is a target for vandalism, his monster battles are aired only on late-night television, and he has to work a wage slave job just to get by. His agent makes more money off of him than he makes himself. He is anything but a big man. In fact, he's much more like an overweight, everyday schlub than the revered figures his ancestors once were.

Big Man Japan exists somewhere in between homage and spoof, somehow managing to get both right. It is itself a monster movie that examines the genre while using it as a framework for a very eclectic canvas. The Japanese monster movie was a culture unto itself. It started out as a reaction to post World War II Japan, quickly transcending mere genre and become a pop culture sensation. Matsumoto turns the camera back on that culture from the perspective of the present day in what has to be the one of the most creative tributes to that era that's ever been made.

BMJ could have gone on from there to be a very interesting examination of the way society views monsters as symbols of their best and worst selves; unfortunately, halfway through the film the plot becomes very confused, descending into a messy set piece that feels grafted on.

One of BMJ's many strengths is that it's a great character study. Even when the plot becomes too overblown and silly, Daisato is a sympathetic character who is much more like an average person than a hero, in that he can't figure out why, despite his best intentions, he keeps getting screwed over and over again. Or why, in spite of being called on to do battle with monsters, he's being made irrelevant in a world that looks at him as late-night entertainment. He's a lonely, sad slacker of a man who nonetheless tries to do the right thing in spite of his many weaknesses, all while dealing with the mighty weight of a family legacy. There is a great deal of subtle emotional complexity beneath the surface of a spot-on parody. Who are the real monsters, the external ones or the internal ones?

Another strength is the hysterically funny fight sequences. It's comedic CGI at its best. These monsters aren't the more robust villains his forbearers faced, like Godzilla and Rodan. Instead, Daisato has to square off against monsters that look like radioactive insects, giant babies and office supplies gone mad.

Though the film could stand to have its last half hour painlessly chopped off as it veers into some silly Power Rangers/Ultraman stuff, the movie as a whole is a lot of fun. It's original, zany and delightful, not to mention virtually impossible to describe in mere words. You might not see a stranger film all year, but it's a wonderful movie in addition to being a loving homage to the Japanese and their obsession with city-destroying monsters. This one is destined for cult film success, and it deserves every bit of it. Matsumoto has done that rare thing: break new ground in a hybrid format in a way that will make any lover of movies like this look forward to seeing what others will do with his vision.

review by
Mary Harvey

12 September 2009

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new