BluRay/DVD Reviews

BIG MAN JAPAN

By • Sep 2nd, 2009 •

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BIG MAN JAPAN is the most hilarious movie I have seen in a long time. It is also original, imaginative, deeply Japanese and, in a delicate, yet mass-market way, universal. It is co-written, directed and produced by a brilliant comedian, Hitoshi Matsumoto, who also stars in it. I had never heard of him before, but he is apparently very popular on TV in Japan. He is also a genius and gives an exquisitely restrained, almost Chaplinesque, performance as Daisato, a giant superhero who protects Japan from kaiju – monsters.

Nathan Lee, writing in the New York Times, places it in the genre of “revisionist superhero” movies, but BMJ owes at least as much to the venerable Japanese creation of kaiju tokusastsu – the cheesy special effect monster movies of which I was personally terrified as a child in the late fifties and sixties. I saw the classic, MOTHRA — about a moth gigantified by atomic testing who takes revenge on humanity – when I was about five. To this day, big furry moths still freak me out and I make my husband …get rid of them. (I was immensely gratified when I read research for this review calling MOTHRA’s special effects ground breaking for their “exploitation of subconscious fears.” Seriously, it’s in the Wikipedia.)
This is not a digression. That was then and this is now; today we laugh at the weird, childlike whimsicality of those unscary monsters. BIG MAN JAPAN came out in 2007, and subtly asks the question – if we recognize that monsters are stupid and fake, how come we still want to see someone kick their asses? Daisato is the superhero equivalent of the monsters of my childhood – a guy who balloons into a tattooed giant in purple underpants whenever Japan is threatened. He carries a stick, though he tries to reason with monsters before using force, like a cop with two years to retirement.

The film is a mockumentary – actually a fictional TV reality (unreality?) show. And in real life Big Man Japan is a divorced loser who drinks beer in noodle parlors, waiting for the call to come. Then we see him man up to a decrepit power station for a Frankenstein-like jolt. Though he gamely fights a truly bizarre assortment of monsters – from “Strangle Monster,” a Michelin man of living elastic seat belts, to “Stink Monster,” a fleshy and distinctly vaginal looking creature apparently in estrus – Daisato’s ratings are in the toilet. Viewers think he’s pathetic.
Of course, he is — in a way we can’t help but recognize. But that’s what’s funny – we’re all scared of all sorts of things that are stupid to other people and the better part of our “bigness” is in our heads. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but what I found funniest was not any of his less than epic battles with kaiju – but his effort to have a birthday outing with his bored ex-wife and five year old daughter at the zoo. Among other indignities, the mother makes the camera crew blur the little girl’s face, as she poses in absurd bunny ears that Daisato has bought her. Yet it is the only time we see him smile.

It made me think about why we need to have monsters in the first place. Life is scary, but there are moments when love makes you feel like you actually could kill a giant one-eyed human spider if you had to. Matsumoto captures the helpless comedy at the heart of our vulnerability, and I kind of love him for that.
The DVD includes a making of, and outtakes of some of the wild monsters. But the film itself just gets wilder and wilder, and I, personally, enjoyed leaving it at that.

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