Big Man Japan

cast: Hitoshi Matsumoto, Riki Takeuchi, Ryûnosuke Kamiki, Haruka Unabara, and Tomoji Hasegawa

director: Hitoshi Matsumoto

113 minutes (15) 2007
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Revolver DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
review by Paul Higson

Big Man Japan
Designer cult movies are generally thought of in terms of one taking a shotgun, pointing it at one’s foot and pulling the trigger. They smell a bit off; feel a bit forced and dishonest. Neither is it the time to make designer cult films. Cult cinema has a new audience and is no longer the slow impact result of a queer reputation garnered over a period with where the film has had potted screenings and limited availability. There is no longer the sense of community for those films as their ownership on DVD is too easy and it is kept to the lounge and sofa. Cult movies now look more like Mamma Mia! as they drag out a proportion of the population that rarely takes a cinema seat. Designer cult movies are objects of whimsy prone to farce. Alex Cox has made a pursuit (moreso than a career) of it, failing for the very reasons that the quirks are overly thought out or that he could never shake the reference points to other films out of his system. Quentin Tarantino is a far worse offender as there is nothing remaining in his movies that could be called original; poor pillock, he just doesn’t get it. The odd film occasionally wins through, like Big Meat Eater, but that was back in 1983 and still a time when there were venues and needy audiences for such films. Today, even the true aficionados of film don’t have the time to revisit the hits as we have access to all areas, and are spoilt for endless choice.

Hitoshi Matsumoto’s Big Man Japan (aka: Dai-Nihonjin) has that designer cult feel to it, unpredictable but discordant, but it could never be termed a failure. Matsumoto directs, co-writes and takes the leading role in a film that has a touch of wonderland about it (drink this electricity in times of purpose to become large), but also Inoshiro Honda, graphic comic books, Spectreman, Takashi Miike, and more besides. The film opens on the desultory, shambling lonely figure of Masaru Matsumoto, known to the public as Daisato, the subject of a documentary explaining how he is always on call as the last of the once heroic superheroes that protect the city from baddies, an odd lot of peculiar creatures that periodically besiege the city. Where once they were a troupe of superheroes and feted by the population they are now budgeted to Masaru and finds himself widely criticised and campaigned against.

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The unrepentant makers know that the viewer is here for the absurd monster clashes but makes us wait for 20 minutes of talking head shots before the important alert comes. Masaru makes his way to the Kanto electric transformation plant #2, one of only two power plants able to send the requisite surge through his body, the surge that will make him a giant ready for battle.

If the sketchy looks and the bricks through his window were not enough of a story of the public dissension with Daisato, the scooter ride up the winding road to the plant confirms it with the messages they have put up throughout the stretch reinforcing the message every time he sets out to do what only he can do on their behalf: “Fall off a cliff!” … “Go to hell Daisato!” … “No more thunderous bangs!” and “Bring wild birds back!” Masaru is blamed for everything that they see as wrong with their planet. This is modern Japan but this is also the modern world, no sooner identifying its heroes and then gurning to reduce them to nought again. Masaru is in a trap as the only remaining active Daisato (his father is senile and in a nursing home which Daisato must pay for) and with no other education or other possibility of an income. It seems irrelevant to the public that without him the baddie creatures would destroy the city if not the planet and far more would die. The general public are the satirical targets and unusually and provocatively the institution is the sensible sector, though one under financial restrictions and rue to pay for its most important asset now. In one barrel of Matsumoto’s gun the public do not know what is good for them and a contemporary selfishness dominates common sense, while in a second barrel is celebrity status, their jealousy of it and petty iconoclasm.

This is a cruel movie which piles the misery upon its protagonist. Just when his life cannot seemingly get any more unappealing another depressing detail emerges or some fresh occurrence brings additional woe. He lies about how often he sees his daughter and the mother makes it clear that she wants to remove him from their lives completely; the new man in her life has a respectable job, income and has already won the girl over. Daisato seems comfortable in his city-protector role as long as he can trounce the monster opponent but when one arrives which gets the upper-hand, kicking the bejesus out of him, he flees like a coward. He will later disagree with the documentarian and the viewer that his retreat was in any way embarrassing but tactical. When a baby monster with no fight in it nearly tears his nipple off mistaking it for a feed he accidentally drops the creature killing it, giving the public another reason to hate him. His agent strikes sponsorship deals with an increasingly dwindling number of interested corporations. They are only interested in using him as a big walking billboard but want their logos and messages as prominent tattoos about his torso and back. The press would normally have the blame laid at their door and in a British film they might be foregrounded. The media is not completely absent as front pages of newspapers feature and the negative vox-pop sequences act in lieu of news reportage. There are so many objectives that the role of the media loses emphasis to the point of uncertainty that the media is held to blame at all but a spoilt people and celebrity envy hold core responsibility for the general attitude.

The monsters that challenge him are introduced as if of a familiar class of creature with an on-screen description which runs along the lines of the details one might expect in a televised tag match. The baddies are strikingly bizarre and inexplicable, often raising questions on impossible origination, none of which is ever going to be explained. They just appear and then, when killed, a faint version drifts heavenwards like some classic spirit going bye-bye or a computer game indicator of defeat. The Jumpy baddie for example has the mental outlook of an eight-year-old, so we are told, though one of low intelligence and its ability to say only ‘sei’ suggests that this would have to be a quite retarded eight-year-old. It bounces around excitedly and poses little real challenge to Daisato. Its death has a disturbing hint of euthanasia about it.

Big Man Japan teems with mixed messages, its targets, tones and the emotional responses are many and unsettling. The final 20 minutes make too broad a switcheroo as the detailed CGI is replaced by a DIY aesthetic recreating the affordable made-do effects of the original Spectreman of the 1970s. Daisato is rescued by a family of tacky American androids who easily biff and then what can only be described as shoddily murder the now ratty and defenceless devil monster that had been giving Daisato such a hard time when it was a scary CGI red fiend with a terrifyingly jagger of a mouth. The devil has killed Daisato’s senile father, who had a habit of sneaking out of the nursing home for electric boosts that return him to his former superhero size, though his missions now non-existent he embarrasses everyone by using the airport as a toy playground and saluting the Sun.

His father dead and daughter increasingly removed there is no real family left to Daisato, and even his agent is distancing herself with revenue drying up, the crass, simple and angry American superhero family seem keen to adopt him, even when it is the last thing he wants. Whether or not this is an erroneous wishful fantasy borne out of the jaws of defeat is neither here nor there, as Big Man Japan defies logic and it is for this reason that the film will continue to draw attention, baffle and bemuse. I watched the film bemoaning the opening and the close of the film, the slow start and the big shift, but was interrupted in delivering the review and suspecting that I would have to view the film again for that immediacy of a response. What I found was that unlike too many films Big Man Japan had not gone away, its vivid images and scenes were still with me and the elapse of time had only brewed the content into greater consideration. It is only following a passage of time and only now that I write about it that I realise how much I appreciate the film. I am sure there is more to find and ponder in Big Man Japan.