8*. BIG MAN JAPAN (2007)

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Dai-Nihonjin

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Hitoshi Matsumoto, Tomoji Hasegawa, Taichi Yazaki

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.

Still from Big Man Japan (2007)

BACKGROUND:

  • 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.
  • Big Man Japan has frequently been suggested/recommended by readers over the years. Most recently, it was runner-up in our 2020 Apocrypha tournament.

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.


U.S. release trailer for Big Man Japan

COMMENTS: Thoroughly committed to its absurd premise, with frequent side trips to the uncanny valley for battles with some of the strangest-looking monsters ever to stomp on Tokyo, and ending on a twist you’ll never see coming, Big Man Japan is as crowd-pleasing a popcorn flick as weird cinema has to offer. The mix of mockumentary comedics with giant monster battles is bracing, and although it sometimes suggests doing a PG comedy, Hitoshi Matsumoto’s  sensibilities are unique enough that Big Man Japan suggests the arrival of a towering new talent in pop-surrealist cinema—even in Japan, where that field is already pretty crowded.

Big Man Japan‘s first twenty minutes restrict themselves to the documentary side of the movie, as we’re introduced to Masaru Daisatô, a middle-aged interview subject who initially doesn’t seem worthy of an onscreen profile. Daisato’s a dull fellow, riding the bus like a schlub; he’s not a great conversationalist, responding to questions slowly and answering the simplest inquiries with “I never thought about it.” The interviewer struggles to get him to open up, asking him questions about the weather. He lives in a dirty shack covered with graffiti; our first hint that he’s someone of note is the fact that his home is labeled “Department of Monster Prevention.” Throughout the film, we learn more about Daisato: he’s separated is from his wife, his little girl doesn’t want to see him, his agent is condescending and would likely rather be spending her time on more successful clients. The interviews are funny—one is interrupted when a vandal throws a brick through his window, and judging from Daisato’s reaction, it’s not the first time—but also carry genuine pathos. Daisato is pathetic, and despite his monster-fighting job, he can be cowardly. And yet, we like him. He’s relatable: he’s unappreciated and trapped in a job that is at best a grind, carrying on out of a sense of duty. He comes from generations of Big Men Japan who were more successful and popular than he is; he is the last of his kind, carrying on the family tradition the best he can with limited talent and less support. And he loves his grandfather.

Watching the first twenty minutes, one could be forgiven for thinking that Big Man Japan was just going to be a mildly amusing, low key superhero spoof. But then the first monster shows up. The military juices Daisato full of electricity and he grows dozens of stories high and marches out to do battle with… a bizarre version of the Michelin Man, with steel-belt radial arms permanently hooked together (he’s dubbed “the Strangling Monster” in an informational card). The Strangling Monster shoots a harpoon out of his butt to anchor himself while he snaps buildings in half, and yet the strangest thing about his appearance is his face, courtesy of a real actor who has been digitally pasted onto this strange beast. The Strangling Monster is distinctively balding, which is not a look we normally expect from a giant monster; come to think of it, we don’t usually expect Godzilla’s foes to have human faces at all. Our fully-grown Big Man Japan, meanwhile, bears Daisato’s visage, but his long stringy hair has frizzed up into a towering Eraserhead fright wig, he’s clad only in a giant purple Speedo, and his paunchy torso covered in tattoos—mostly advertisements from sponsors. Using only a baton, Big Man Japan defeats the Strangling Monster, more competently than he will in future battles. His performance, along with his TV ratings, has apparently been declining for a long time, and gets visibly worse as the movie plays. Future fights will pit him against a menagerie of mutants including a hopping head, an eye-on-an-umbilical-cord creature, and a baby monster. These cheesy-yet-bizarre designs are Big Man Japan‘s ace in the hole; you can’t wait to see what bizarre morphology Matsumoto will conjure up next. A giant red demon turns out to be Big Man’s undoing, providing the only monster he’s unable to overcome—until he receives some unexpected help at the film’s climax.

As for the finale… we wouldn’t want to spoil it, except to say expect the unexpected. The movie’s style suddenly changes—especially the costuming, as the giant Big Man Japan’s look itself is altered along with the rest of the scene. It’s jarring, but there is a thematic continuity. Considered from the perspective of the changes in the marketing of monsters in Japanese popular culture, it mirrors the kaiju culture shift from big screen to television (and takes a shot at the “Americanization” of the genre, which is more evident when you watch the extended sequence on DVD). If it’s any consolation, our huge hero is as visibly nonplussed by the new developments as the viewer will be. The scene highlights his irrelevance in the modern world; at one point in the final battle, he rightly observes, “I make no difference.” Be sure to stay through the credits as the epilogue plays out, with a panel deconstructing the final battle as Big Man Japan sits by silently (verdict: it was largely “crappy”).

The strange conclusion of Big Man Japan signals the direction Matsumoto would take in his career. This movie starts out merely odd, a simple parody enlivened by bizarre creature designs, but suddenly takes a turn into the inexplicable. His next film, Symbol, about a man waking up in a room filled with cherub statues that dispense random items, would be thoroughly surrealistic from start to finish. His last film to date, 2013’s R100, is an S&M-themed feature that follows the strategy of Big Man Japan in starting out eccentric and getting weirder and weirder as it goes on; still, at it’s baseline it’s stranger than Big Man Japan, and goes even further afield by the end. Despite his later successes, Big Man Japan remains Matsumoto’s most widely-seen feature, and the one with the broadest appeal. It’s not hard to see why. If you love cinematic strangeness, Japanese-style, then you’ll be hooked from the moment “the Strangling Monster” flips his head to restore the combover that’s slipped out of place as he tosses the top half of a skyscraper into a nearby river.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Part character study, part media satire and, by its finale, altogether bizarre, ‘Big Man Japan’ plays a bit like a quieter, weirder version of ‘Hancock.'”–Nathan Lee, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“…the hysterically funny CGI fight sequences… pit the chubby superhero against a series of creatures so bizarre they’d keep Hieronymus Bosch awake at night.”–J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE:

Big Man Japan (Official Movie Site) – U.S. distributor Magnet’s site features a small image gallery and a downloadable press kit

IMDB LINK: Big Man Japan (2007)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Big Man Japan – Movie – The Movieclips YouTube channel hosts ten short scenes from the film

Big Man Japan – Asian Wiki – Includes an image gallery

READER RECOMMENDATION: BIG MAN JAPAN [DAI NIHONJIN] (2007) – Our first mention of the movie on this site, a 2010 reader recommendation from

HOME VIDEO INFO: Magnet released the Big Man Japan DVD in 2009 (buy). Along with the trailer and trailers for Magnet’s other “6-Shooter” series of films, it contains a couple of meaty extras for fans, especially the sixteen extended or deleted scenes—almost an hour of extra material. They are mostly longer interviews with Masaru Daisatô that were rightfully cut, but it does include an extended version of the bizarre final battle with the red demon that’s a lot of fun. The second major bonus is a “making of” feature that runs just over an hour. It’s in Japanese, with commentary from some of the crew who worked in the effects department. It’s mostly subtitled, although the translator appears to have fallen asleep a couple of times. With no theatrical release to speak of, this DVD is how Western fans first found this cult film. Naturally, the disc’s visual and audio fidelity is superb.

Big Man Japan has not yet been released on Blu-ray. It is available on VOD (rent or buy digitally).

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