REVIEW: Big Man Japan

Famous for bewildering audiences this year at the Cannes Film Festival, "Big Man Japan" (or "Dai-Nipponjin") is a curious experiment in mockumentary, chronicling the adventures of an aging slacker who grows to gigantic size to fight monsters as Japan's most hated superhero. Though this type of parody will remind viewers of 1984's "This is Spinal Tap," the already absurd conventions of Japanese monster movies give "Big Man Japan" an extra kick and set a significant challenge for the filmmakers to overcome. After all, it's difficult to be much more over-the-top than the source films, which were ostensibly made in all seriousness. "Big Man Japan" succeeds, then, by mixing the low key--and pathetic--personal life of the hero with his monster-fighting exploits. Which, yes, take things to an amazing level. To Eleven, one might say.

Director, co-writer and star Hitosi Matsumoto begins his enigmatic film with camera crews following Daisatou, a slovenly, hesitant man living alone in Tokyo, unrecognized and unappreciated by the people he has sworn to protect. The interviewer, played by Tomoji Hasegawa, struggles to get a straightforward answer out of his disheveled subject, who seems content to discuss the virtue of umbrellas.

The film is a bit slow moving in its first few scenes-Daisatou is probably not someone who should be put in front of a camera, but this is part of the point. As these interview sequences are broken up by Dai-Nipponjin's battles, however, it becomes easier to digest and sympathize with the more human elements, such as Daisatou's estrangement from wife and daughter and his failure to live up to his heroic grandfather's legacy. Discussions with other people in Daisatou's life provide a fuller picture of his tragedy, from the influence of his conniving manager to his own difficulty admitting hard truths to himself.

When duty calls, Daisatou travels to one of several government facilities across Japan to make his transformation. Though shut out of primary Tokyo station, in one of the more provincial locations the documentary crew is allowed to film the time-honored ritual meant to prepare a hero for metamorphosis, as well as the change itself. The process of transformation is both simple and inspired, as the mild-mannered Daisatou steps into the middle of a giant set of underpants set between lightning rods, growing into the briefs as the current courses through his body. But it's the pre-growth image that provides the real thrill: a tiny man in giant underpants is one of those things you didn't know you've always wanted to see. There are several such moments of revelation in "Big Man Japan."

The fight scenes, of course, are beautifully absurd. Big Man Japan and his opponents are awkward CGI manifestations, with Daisatou's recognizable face topped off with an electricity-induced mohawk and set in a robust, scantily-clad body. Here, we also see more of Daisatou's marketing potential. On the advice of his manager, Dai-Nipponjin has acquired sponsorship tattoos at various places on his body and is frequently instructed to position his body so that the logos are visible. As the fight begins, a Ministry of Defense brief informs the viewer of each monster's details--though, in most cases, the truly interesting bits come from the villain's appearance. The Strangling Monster, for example, is most memorable for his awkward comb-over, while the Evil Stare Monster is notable for the unfortunate placement of his singular eye. Yes, it's a two-minute long dick joke, but it's a pretty clever dick joke.

The tone of Big Man Japan's battles splinters when he is savagely beaten by an unknown demonic adversary, but then encounters a series of less-than-threatening beasts. The Stink Monster, an intelligent and more or less nonviolent creature who carries "the stench of ten thousand human feces," engages in a shouting match with our hero, who tells the monster to remove himself to the suburbs. This fight, and a tragic yet somehow hilarious confrontation later in the film, cement Dai-Nipponjin in his downward spiral toward irrelevance, even as the existential threat of the mysterious devil character could destroy him at any time.

Then there's that ending. Without giving too much away, the climactic battle is a guaranteed surprise. Loved and hated in seemingly equal measure, the conclusion of "Big Man Japan" doesn't necessarily wrap up the film in anything like a meaningful fashion, but it does contribute to the movie's central conceit of a superhero who simply can't fit in and can never get it right. If it suggests something darker about Dai-Nipponjin's ultimate fate, as many have suggested, Matsumoto has cleverly masked this under a veneer of utmost camp. Which, of course, would be in keeping with the rest of "Big Man Japan."

"Big Man Japan" hits American theatres on May 15 as part of the Six Shooter Film Series, which also includes "Let the Right One In" and "Special."

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