Big Man Japan is a Japanese movie about superheroes and giant monsters, set in a brightly-hued, pixilated fantasy world. It’s also a sensitive, probing documentary about a simple man trying to live life in modern Tokyo. And in both ways, it is completely fascinating.
The film centers on Daisatou (played by the film’s director, legendary low-budget comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto), a quiet man who works for the government for very little money. He is being interviewed and followed around by a documentary crew, who discover that he is single, since his wife left him, and spends most of his time sitting in parks and playing with his cat. Due to his work, he is not able to take any vacations or leave the country.
Matsumoto is utterly charming in the role, portraying a man who seems to be too humble to consider his own problems very much, but who answers any questions about himself honestly and thoughtfully when they are put to him. But overall, Daisatou only has a few qualities that are particularly comment-worthy. For one, he has a tendency to wear slightly gaudy accessories like leopard-print hats, and also, for such a non-assuming fellow, he seems a little too obsessed with his own long, flowing hair.
But the only really remarkable thing about Daisatou is what makes him most unique to his fellow-countrymen. You see, his job with the government involves fighting large, skyscraper-high monsters that threaten the city on a regular basis. He sits around until one shows up, then heads to a power station where a powerful surge of electricity turns him into Big Man Japan, a huger version of himself, equal in size to the attacking demons. For the sake of decency, Matsumoto steps into a giant pair of underpants before undergoing his artificial growth-spurts.
Unfortunately, the citizens of Tokyo are not especially grateful to their protector. Many, in fact, hate him for the destruction and noise pollution he causes whenever he fights within the city, while at the same time mocking him whenever he comes up short in his battles. He incurs just enough goodwill to get businesses to advertise by tattooing their brand names onto his super-inflated body, but a show covering his adventures is still the lowest rated program TV. The ratings only rise when Daisatou gets beaten up by a monster he can’t handle.
As the film progresses, we begin to see some cracks in Daisatou’s generally calm exterior. Gradually his inner emotions start to pour out, and we learn that he is a man filled with resentment.
Resentment that he does not live in an earlier age where Japan’s super-sized heroes were revered by the public; resentment towards his agent for not representing him better to his sponsors; resentment towards the public who blame him for causing a host of problems without thanking him for the sacrifices he makes on their behalf; resentment towards the government that over-worked his grandfather to the point of disability; resentment towards his father for an obsession with his job as hero that came to devastate the rest of his family; and, paradoxically, resentment towards his wife for not allowing his only child to follow in the family business.
The film gets a lot of subtly comedic moments out of these issues, but makes it clear that Daisatou is a man who has been given the short end of the stick in life, and sees no way to make things any better.
Meeting Daisatou, being charmed by his quiet eccentricity and growing increasingly sympathetic to his plight is the film’s main draw. And honestly, that would have been enough to make this project a worthwhile endeavor. But is spends a large part of it’s time in the world of the invading monsters and their clashes with Daisatou.
I call this a ‘different world’ because, stylistically, it is vastly different from the faux-documentary that makes up the rest of the movie. Matsumoto could have taken the safe-route and just hinted at the battles through news reports or grainy, long range footage, but instead chooses to go all out by creating an over-the-top, computer generated Tokyo, where a pixilated Daisatou fights his opponents as if in a video game. Like the stop-motion animation Wes Anderson employed for his sea-creatures in The Life Aquatic, the contrast is initially disconcerting, but eventually becomes a fascinating addition to the picture’s main thrust.
The monsters Daisatou takes on come in an incredibly inventive array of shapes and sizes. There is a stink monster, that resembles the little pink octopus from Pixar’s Finding Nemo, and a two legged beast with one eye attached to the end of a long tentacle. When they are defeated, after bouts in which they usually are felled by their own mistakes rather than any skill on Daisatou’s part, they rise to heaven in a radiant beam of light while a choir of angels sings in the background.
Other than that, the only thing the monsters have in common with each other is their disturbingly human faces and, as the film progresses, Daisatou starts interacting with them as more of an equal than he does with the humans he lives amongst, trying to talk them out of their activities rather than battering them with the giant rod which is the only weapon he carries. It’s a dangerous but lovely world that Daisatou goes to work in, and while it visually has no connection with the rest of the film, the deadpan humor and underlying sadness that pervades it allows these scenes to enhance the movie’s story rather than take away from it.
Unfortunately, the only really distracting part of the film comes at its end. The finale sees Daisatou joined by a family of costumed superheroes who ruthlessly beat the crap out of a particularly malevolent demon, and then insist that Daisatou comes home with them to argue about the finer points of looking cool while fighting in public. In the process, the battle switches from being computer-animated to the traditional tokusatsu style, in which men dressed up in rubber suits fight in a scaled-down model city (the battle scenes in Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers).
It’s hilarious, sure, and a clever riff on one of Japanese pop-culture’s most unique aspects. But it does nothing to resolve the issues that plague Daisatou, and upsets the surprisingly perfect balance earlier achieved between the filmed and computer-created segments. The film isn’t ruined, but it also isn’t really finished, and that’s a shame given how much Matusmoto and his crew are able to make the viewer care about such an unlikely character as Daisatou.
The extras on the DVD version are scant but interesting. A ‘Making Of’ documentary delves into the creative process that led to the design of the film’s monsters and battlegrounds, and a collection of deleted scenes supply a few more details about Daisatou’s strange, lonely life.