PLOT: An offscreen interviewer asks questions of middle-aged Masaru Daisatô, who grows into the giant “Big Man Japan” to fight various monsters who plague the country, as part of a documentary on the superhero’s fading popularity. Far from being honored for protecting the nation from kaiju attacks, Masaru is suffering from low ratings in his late-night time slot, is going through a divorce, and his house is covered in graffiti and vandalized whenever he causes collateral damage. When he flees from one particularly tough monster, his reputation is further damaged, and his retired grandfather (a previous Big Man Japan) leaves the nursing home to take on the kaiju himself.
Previously known in Japan as a comedian, Big Man Japan was Hitoshi Matsumoto’s first feature film.
The film spent five years in development and took a year to shoot.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The endlessly inventive giant monsters—with creepy human faces pasted on them via the black magic of CGI—are Big Man Japan‘s key visual motif. The Stink Monster, who looks like a cross between a squid and a fleshy flower petal, doesn’t seem like the weirdest kaiju in the stable, until a second Stink Monster shows up to do a wild mating dance that makes him look like a spastic ballerina on speed trying to get lucky at the disco on Saturday night.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Combover kaiju; Stink Monster mating dance
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It plays like a genetically modified experiment in corssbreeding Spinal Tap with a late-era Godzilla monster mash, which is strange enough; Big Man Japan is not satisfied with it’s own oddness yet, however, so it takes another unanticipated turn into lunacy in the final act.
FEATURING: Hitoshi Matsumoto, David Quintero, Luis Accinelli
PLOT: A Japanese man wakes up in an enormous white chamber whose walls and floor are littered with cherubic phalluses; meanwhile a Mexican luchador, “Escargot Man,” prepares for a wrestling match.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The main narrative, following the action in the white room, is so absolutely removed from reality it demands a place on the List, while the Mexican wrestling scenes remain incongruous and weirdly exotic throughout.
COMMENTS: It’s difficult to talk about why Symbol is so arresting and oddly rewarding without spoiling details of the story or the reveals near the film’s end. Suffice to say the two seemingly unrelated narratives come together in a most unexpected and ridiculous way, and the torture experienced by the Japanese protagonist in the white room leads to a truly transcendent revelation by the film’s end.
The film is structured under three headings: “Learning, Practice and Future.” Learning refers to the rough education the Japanese man receives in the white room from the mischievous owners of the Cherubic phalluses, while the particulars of Practice and Future I’ll leave viewers to discover on their own.
Much of the early joy of the film involves watching Matsumoto interact with the white room and the objects released therein, seeing his mounting frustration at the “bait and switch” as the Cherubs deliver alternately helpful or useless items. They give him an endless stream of sushi rolls, but no soy sauce until after he’s eaten the very last one; 3D glasses direct him to press a particular button, only to have an enormous Cherub behind break wind on him. Another scene sees him releasing an endless pile of chopsticks before he finally presses a different phallus, sending an office trolley careening into his shin. This comedic torment in the vein of silent film comics like Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd continues until Matsumoto recognizes a means of escape…only to be led to earth-shattering alternatives.
There is very little to fault in this film; from its production values to its execution it is equally unique, vibrant and visually arresting. The pacing is surprisingly jaunty for an episodic film, and it actually rewards a re-watch to see how all the various threads build towards the film’s close. Some viewers may find the ridiculous payoffs a little too surreal to be satisfying; to them I can only recommend the consolation to be found in the philosophical treatise “In Praise of Silly,” the book never written by comedian Mike Myers’s father, who believed silliness “was our natural state, and we only get serious to get to silly.” Symbol contains moments of textbook Japanese cinematic weirdness.
A possible weak element of the film (other than two unnecessary moments of flatulence humor) could be identified in Matsumoto’s performance; while his timing is excellent and he works as a hapless, unassuming everyman, his constant screaming is often irritating. A more skilled slapstick performer like Jim Carrey, Lee Evans or Rowan Atkinson could have made the physical comedy transcendent and ballet-like rather than merely solid and amusing. This is a rare case where I would not mind a U.S. remake.
I know little about director and star Matsumoto, other than he is one half of a comic duo—the boke or “funny man” of a team called “Downtown”—on Japanese television, just like his contemporary Takeshi “Beat” Kitano (Hana-bi, Violent Cop) was at the beginning of his career. The comparison to Kitano is apt due to the similar career trajectory the two men have followed, although Matsumoto only has four feature film directorial credits to his name and none of the Kitano’s international recognition—at least for the time being. Also, from a cursory YouTube glance, Matsumoto’s TV persona appears to be that of a histrionic, put-upon weed (the character he develops here follows a similar vein) whereas Kitano’s comedy always came from his role as bully.
(This movie was nominated for review by many people, but “Roy” was first when he advised us in 2010 “You gotta check out this flick ‘Symbol’ by the director of Big Man Japan.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)
PLOT: A Japanese furniture salesman pays a secret bondage society so that dominatrixes will attack him at random times in public, but things go too far when they start showing up at his work and home.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: By the end, after a relatively conventional beginning, R100 has gone from a one-joke lashing to full-fledged absurdist pummeling. This black sex comedy is demented enough to make the List, but we do wonder whether one of Matsumoto’s other movies might better represent his weird movie legacy.
COMMENTS:The first half of R100 is rather ordinary. Relatively so: most people would consider a movie where a man’s date kicks him in the face at dinner, and where a dominatrix stands beside him and smashes each course of sushi the mortified chef places before him, very strange indeed. R100 begins its life almost as a drama, doling out hints of backstory about our masochistic salaryman, who struggles as a single parent of a young boy with a wife in a coma. The movie eschews the chance to explore his psychology, however; we never gain any insight as to how ritualized pain and humiliation helps him deal with his problems. Instead, R100 spirals off into crazier and crazier directions, as the dominatrix attacks he’s contracted for intensify, start to interrupt his normal life, and threaten the one thing he loves more than a good beating from a merciless leather-clad mistress: his child.
The public attacks on our hero get repetitive, as if R100 doesn’t know how it wants to develop its premise. Then, in the middle of the film, Matsumoto springs a number of oddities and radical tone shifts. There are metamovie interludes which explain the movie’s title: we are watching the work of a 100-year-old director who considers this material inappropriate for anyone younger than himself (thus R100—restricted to those over 100 years of age). The main narrative takes a turn into B-movie territory when our hero is forced to turn against the bondage club after an botched session with the “Queen of Saliva.” You know the movie is completely off the rails by the time the ridiculous “Queen of Gobbling” shows up (and when the film’s producers debate cutting her out of the movie). The climax, which features our formerly meek hero lobbing grenades at an army of dominatrices commanded by a foul-mouthed blond Amazon stuffed into a tight rubber teddy, seems like it could have been choreographed by a team consisting of John Waters, David Lynch and Mel Brooks. And the coda takes the weirdness to the next generation.
The way R100 starts out off-kilter and slides into greater and greater absurdity will thrill many who view the film as a simple comedy. It’s enjoyable enough on that level, but there were hints of depth in the character and themes that were never explored, and this is something of a missed opportunity. Masochism is easily stated as a philosophy—from pain comes pleasure—but it’s nearly impossible for an outsider to comprehend this most counterintuitive of fetishes. Maybe that’s why Matsumoto depicts it as an incomprehensible enigma. Or maybe you just have to reach the century mark to get it.
PLOT: Not-so-lovable loser transforms into significantly larger loser to battle some of the weirdest monsters to ever threaten Japan.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: On a purely visual level, Big Man Japan has a bizarre aesthetic that nobody else would rightly consider. Beyond that, the film’s humor is often so subtle that you don’t realize what strange territory you’ve stumbled into until it ends up battling it out on the screen in its underwear. This film is just weird.
COMMENTS: Did you ever watch Mike Myers defend the male nudity in Austin Powers by claiming that the naked male form has been a comedic stereotype in British humor for years, but you still got the sense that he just enjoyed running around naked? Well, Japanese comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto has taken Myer’s original intent and literally writ it large for the big screen. Prepare yourself for a loving CGI rendition of the male form, with every stray hair delineated and a paunch that could kill.
Matsumoto doesn’t stop there. His film, Big Man Japan, is as loving a tribute to pure loser-dom as you could hope to film. His character is the none-too-bright heir to monster fighters in an alternate-reality Japan where giant monsters attack on a regular basis. Unfortunately, while his monster-battlin’ grandfather was considered a hero, he is now a national joke, fighting inexplicably ridiculous monsters for increasingly little ratings. (His show now only airs in the wee hours of the morning.) As if being a national joke was not enough, our current Big Man manages to fail every time he is called up to bat.
Big Man Japan is a slow burn of a film. If you are familiar with celebration of wrong-headed intentions Christopher Guest has been putting out for years, you should be comfortable here. The majority or the film focuses on interviews with our loser as he is subtly confronted with his abject shame in society. Luckily for us, every twenty minutes or so, he must fight against a bizarre menagerie of monsters in CGI battles that are, to say the very least, uncomfortable.
This is an odd film. But before you throw it out, stick around for the ending. I’m not going to give it away here, and I’m not even sure I could if I tried. Suffice to say, I laughed like a maniac, probably to the consternation of all my friends.
Big Man Japan is nothing else other than Big Man Japan. Before you venture in, I recommend you watch the preview. If it looks at all interesting to you (you’re a small crowd), watch it. You may be unpleasantly surprised. Or the opposite. No real way to predict your fate with this film. Suffice to say, don’t expect to get out unscathed.