A few months back, a friend of mine showed me a trailer for Big Man Japan, Hitoshi Matsumoto’s Japanese mockumentary send-up of monster movies. Yesterday I stumbled on the film via Netflix.
What did I think of the film? Well, I can’t say it was a masterpiece, and I can’t claim that there weren’t long chunks that bored the hell out of me, but these pieces served a purpose–to make the insane battle sequences, over-the-top monsters and absolutely insane WTF ending all the more psychedelic.
The film follows Matsumoto’s Masaru Daisatô, an unassuming, sad man living in a Japanese slum. His wife has left him, taking hi daughter away, and he is despised by the people of Japan. Why? Because he carries on the tradition of his forefathers as a protector of the country. Unfortunately, this involved being zapped with electricity and growing into a giant man in small shorts who fights odd monsters who attack the country.
Most, though, think Big Man Japan causes more trouble than he fixes. The ratings on his televised monster-fighting show are down, and producers have resorted to selling advertising space on the Big Man’s chest and back.
That’s not the weird part, though. What’s most whacky about this film is the monsters themselves–a group of insane designs, many with oversized human heads, who fight with the weirdest superpowers known to monster-dom. Like the “stink monster,” or the “stare monster” who fights by throwing his eye at you.
Whoever thought these creations up was on acid. I’m sure of it. And this makes the monster-fighting scenes the most entertaining in the movie, mostly because of their quirky pacing and odd, off-beat choreography.
The rest of the film shows us the Big Man as a very small man struggling with very depressing every-day problems. It gets tedious and a little depressing, to tell the truth, but just when you want get uber-melancholy, it’s time to fight another monster.
But all the serious stuff and the CGI monster fights serve a larger purpose–to make the ending all the more mind blowing. Spoilers ahead.
The film ends with Big Man Japan facing off against “the red monster,” the only monster that he seems legitimately afraid of. His agent and television studio get together with the government to orchestrate a surprise fight with this diabolical foe, breaking into Big Man Japan’s house, hooking him up to some electrodes, and forcing an impromptu “power up.”
In the process, Big Man accidentally kills his grandfather (who shows up all powered-up to help fight the red foe) and almost gets beat to a pulp. Then the whole episode switches over to “Live Mode,” and we’re treated to an episode of the Power Rangers.
Instead of the lick CGI, we get people in suits in the midst of a really fake-looking Japanese city. A group of heroes, led by “Justice” show up to save the day, pummeling the red monster to a pulp by combining their powers via “rainbow ray.” Then they force Big Man (not Matsumoto in a fat suit) to fly with them through the clouds and have a very innocuous dinner where they discuss all the mistakes they made in the fight.
Here it is for those of you who want to spoil the film. Watch at your own risk…
After seeing that, you either have to see this movie immediately, or you’ve lost interest. Both reactions are justified.
But the ending, though off-the-wall, really saved the movie for me. Watching this tight and somewhat boring drama for an hour and a half made the insane “man-in-suit” fights all the more insanely mind-blowingly hilarious. And I realized that this movie was doing a lot more than I was giving it credit.
The movie is about the loss of traditional Japanese culture. The shift in tone is so marked and obvious that we can’t think of it as anything but a social commentary.
A lot of critics seem to see this whole ending as a dream state as Big Man is dying in the clutches of the Red Monster–an event orchestrated by the government and TV station to boost ratings and get rid of the Big Man once and for all. This seems reasonable–especially since it ends with our hero being boosted (against his will) into the clouds. Plus the movie went out of its way to show us what happens to monsters when they die (a spotlight beams their souls into the heavens).
What’s more interesting than that, though, is the form of the new heroes. They all wear red, white and blue–an obvious reference to the U.S. and a callback to political discussions that occurred earlier in the film. And while they kick the Red Monster’s ass to over-the-top patriotic music, Big Man hides in the corner. When it comes time to finish the monster off, the Big Man is asked to participate but comments that “he makes no difference.”
Another note is that in the DVD subtitles, the family of superheroes are yelling “Peace!” as they force Big Man to join with them. A sly commentary on the double-talk of American politics, or a bad translation? I’ve no idea.
Later, when having dinner, the family of superheroes seems more concerned about their image and how they achieved victory than the victory, itself. And Big Man seems totally apathetic to the whole thing.
Take this as you will, but to me it seems a clear (and hilarious) commentary on Japan’s relationship with America. Some critics have even gone so far as to compare the Red Monster to North Korea or Red China, and, to them, the whole fight illustrates Japan’s reliance on the U.S. for protection and the loss of its culture and tradition.
I don’t know how far I want to take this argument, to tell the truth, but it’s damn interesting, and it’s something I didn’t expect when I first turned on this psychotic movie. If nothing else, it’s great to know that a film can have something to say while still being balls-to-the-wall crazy, funny, and satirical.
It’s definitely worth a watch–or, better yet, two. Yes, it’s a movie about a man growing to enormous size and fighting giant monsters, but (as if that wasn’t enough) there’s a whole other level of weirdness to be experienced below the surface.