Let us begin by stating the obvious: Big Man Japan is a bizarre movie. Moments after the showing I saw ended, a fellow audience member loudly exclaimed, “What the fuck was that?” and then laughed heartily. Indeed, it feels as though that is precisely the sort of response that director and co-writer Hitoshi Matsumoto, the famous Japanese comedian, wishes to provoke with his monster movie mockumentary.
In the opening scenes of the movie, a documentary film crew captures the seemingly humdrum life of a middle-aged Japanese man named Dai-Sato (played by Matsumoto). We follow him home from work, watch him cook dinner, and listen as he discusses, as if in a haze, such banal topics as umbrellas, stray cats, and dried seaweed. Slowly, though, we’re given clues as to why Dai-Sato is so glum: he is separated from his wife and daughter, people frequently deface his house with graffiti and throw rocks through his window, and his job requires that he be on call at all times. We’re left wondering what could be weighing so heavily on him.
The answer arrives 20 minutes into the movie, when Dai-Sato receives a call on his cell phone and reports to a local electricity plant, where he is hooked up to the power supply and turned into the last remaining Big Man Japan, a giant warrior clad in purple underpants who must defend his country from threatening monsters and have his exploits broadcast on television as entertainment for an increasingly difficult-to-please national audience. This then is his burden, to defend a public that no longer admires his gifts, but rather is losing interest in them and evenly actively resents them.
The movie alternates between slower sections documenting his everyday troubles and hilarious battle encounters with various monsters. On the one hand, we witness him arguing with his agent about whether or not he should be placing ads on his giant body, explaining how much better his grandfather had it when he was Big Man Japan years ago, and awkwardly meeting his wife and daughter for lunch. On the other hand, we see him half-heartedly confront monsters such as the Evil Stare Monster and the Stink Monster in rather cheekily-rendered CGI. This movement back and forth between the everyday and the superhuman creates a rather oddly affecting tone, and despite the strange details of the story, I found myself drawn to Dai-Sato as his life spirals downward and he loses his will to fight. This rhythm provides an effective means of delivering numerous layers of satire aimed at mocking a consumer culture where a celebrity’s status is only as good as his latest ratings, and a national symbolic tradition is taken for granted or becomes the object of popular scorn. Whatever Dai-Sato’s limitations as a superhero, the culture around him doesn’t seem to deserve him anyway.
Not that we should take the satirical or critical nature of the movie too seriously though. After all, it’s just a B-movie, a point underscored when Matsumoto suddenly interrupts his movie’s carefully crafted rhythm and delivers an ending that is so odd, so unexpected that it cannot possibly be described. At just the moment when we might become comfortable with the movie’s world and even sympathize with Dai-Sato’s wish to be “just a normal Japanese guy,” Matsumoto rips the rug out from under us. Suffice it to say that the movie’s final 10 minutes seem to be both an over-the-top homage to schlocky sci-fi and monster movies of decades past and a rather too-obvious commentary on contemporary global politics.
Needless to say, not everyone will enjoy Big Man Japan. Like the audience member I overheard, many will leave the theater thinking (or even saying aloud) “What the fuck was that?” — some in confusion, some in disgust, and some (like myself) with glee.