Monday, July 19, 2010

Random Movie Report #77: Big Man Japan

DVD cover and Amazon Link
BIG MAN JAPAN has a simple title and should be easy enough to describe. It’s a satire of old-school live action “Henshin” shows where giant Japanese superheroes fought giant monsters, done in a low-key documentary style. But it’s much, much stranger than that. Darker, too- while the appeal of the genre is couched in pure escapism and the can-do attitudes of its protagonists, BIG MAN JAPAN takes place in a bleak and cynical world where superherodom is a dying art appreciated by few. Japanese comedy tends not to make it over here, because it’s really hard for the humor to be properly translated, and I’m convinced I’m missing tons of cultural nuance, but it’s probably a surreal experience no matter what your nationality.

Masaharu Daisato (Hitoshi Matsumoto, who co-wrote and directed the film) is the last in a long line of “Dai-Nihonjin”, a term for which Big Man Japan is probably the best translation. He lives alone with a cat in a grubby apartment, frequents the local noodle bar, and every once in a while is called up to attach electrodes to his nipples and transform into a giant warrior to defend the country from giant monsters. The problem is, nobody cares. His battles are shown on late night TV to dismal ratings, and his agent (Ua, no really, that’s her full name) is trying to get him to wear giant logos on his body to bring in sponsorship money. He’s separated, tries to see his daughter more than twice a year, and spends a lot of time looking after his grandfather, once the most popular Big Man Japan of all, now senile and prone to wandering away from the rest home. A documentary team follows him through his travails as his career hits a series of new lows.

The pacing of the film is slow and deliberate, in a way that’s disconcerting at first. You’d expect what’s basically an Ultraman parody to be fast moving, but the film’s conceit is that this is just a job, a dying industry kept around for old time’s sake. The fact that there are giant monsters threatening Japan doesn’t seem to make people respect Masaharu or even view his work as necessary. A number of details aren’t really explained; not just why he’s the only one doing a necessary job, but also how the whole “Big Man Japan” concept seems to work and where all these monsters are coming from. Most of it, I assume we’re not meant to look at too closely, but it can pile up.

When we do get to the monster fights, they take on a surreal quality all their own. The battles are mostly CG, with Masaharu in giant form having odd proportions; the monsters almost all have human faces (at least a couple can even talk), and their powers range from odd to vaguely gross; whenever he kills one, it’s represented by their ghosts ascending into the sky in a circle of light, accompanied by a sound effect I’ve heard in many a Godzilla film. The pacing of the fight scenes tends to be slow, though they don’t last too long. There’s an intentional denial taking place of the normal thrills and spectacle of a traditional monster movie, the filmmakers instead opting for a deconstructionist approach.

A plot of sorts starts to emerge, involving a red devilish monster who sends Big Man Japan running, ironically garnering him much higher ratings than when he was winning. We also get some development of Masaharu as we see he’s basically tied down by his obligation to his grandfather, who saved him from a bullying father as a child (said father later blowing himself up in an attempt to max out his power.) He wants to confront the Red Devil (apparently sent by North Korea), but is also sort of a coward when it comes to facing an enemy stronger than he is, and other monster confrontations become PR disasters.

And then, very abruptly, the film takes a turn. I’ve looked at some possible interpretations of the ending, from genre commentary to nationalist allegory. As an ending, it’s sort of unsatisfying, and doesn’t quite resolve all the conflicts raised. That said, it is hilarious, and in and of itself is a brilliant parody of... well, to reveal what would be cheating. (And I’m really straining myself, because some of the bits are so good that you want to share them.)

I didn’t quite love this movie. There’s an inherent, deliberate awkwardness to it- it’s slow-paced, off-putting, and grim. I’m not entirely sure I “get” all of it. But BIG MAN JAPAN has a lot to recommend it, including a strong lead performance and some well-thought-out commentary on the henshin genre and the nationalistic character of the superhero vs. monster narrative. It’s entertaining in its way, and has a certain love for the material it’s subverting, which is important. If it’s a little obtuse in the end and a little inaccessible, it’s also unique. And it is kinda funny. So you should probably give it a look.

Written by Hitoshi Matsumoto and Mitsuyoshi Takasu
Directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto

Grade: B

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