Big Man Japan – Review
Daisato lives a mundane life in a rundown house tagged with insulting and obscenity-riddled graffiti. This middle-aged slacker seems a puzzling subject to be followed by the documentary crew that films his banal daily routine. That is, until he prepares for his “job.” As bolts of electricity rip through the sky, Daisato is transformed into a stocky giant several storeys high, sporting tight purple briefs, tattoos and an Eraserhead-style hairdo. In his hand is a big stick – for beating the crap out of monsters.
A running theme in Hitoshi Matsumoto’s films is their protagonists’ coming to terms with their place in the world. Matsumoto’s debut film Big Man Japan is the most accomplished exploration of this theme as the middle-aged Daisato represents a nation’s declining self-image and growing sense of insignificance in the world.
Daisato is the one of the only two remaining Dai-Nipponjin and the only active one left. As a Dai-Nipponjin, he must periodically subject his body to bolts of electricity to become a 30-meter-tall, purple underwear-clad warrior to fight off monsters that attack Japan. The battles are televised and his agent’s job is to find sponsors that want their brands to be featured on Daisato’s body during these fights. Although the Dai-Nipponjin were once celebrated defenders of Japan, Daisato is constantly criticized and threatened by the public and is given a much lower salary than that of his predecessors.
Big Man Japan presents its story in the form of a mockumentary, and in an early interview Daisato explains that he hopes to teach the younger generation of Japan the importance of tradition. Although the film is critical of the Japanese citizenry’s growing disregard for its cultural roots, the film acknowledges the silliness of its traditions. Daisato admits that it would be much easier and practical for the Japanese government to defend its cities with its military than it is for it to send Daisato to fight the monsters. A ceremony always takes place before Daisato is juiced with electricity even though the priest admits to the documentarian that Daisato would be able to transform into a Dai-Nipponjin without the ceremony. Other participants in the ceremony also explain that they used to conduct the ceremonies with fervor but have since taken the ceremonies less seriously. These scenes derive its humor from the matter-of-factness of the interviewees as the documentarian is taken aback by how openly the interviewees admit to the pointlessness of what they do.
The feeling of one’s own insignificance in the world is a feeling experienced by Daisato and this creates an accumulating feeling of despair throughout the film. Daisato is apathetic at the start of the film, but whatever optimism and dignity he has at the beginning is crushed by the film’s end. This could have been overbearing if it were not for the fact that the film is frequently at its most humorous when it is as its saddest. Daisato only gets to see his daughter twice a year but when he gets to see his daughter at one point in the film, his daughter’s image and voice are distorted against his wishes so as to avoid embarrassing the mother and child. And in one scene where Daisato is desperate for sponsors, he is forced to make an exception to his policy that does not allow for company logos to be tattooed onto his back. Although Daisato is faced with financial troubles and must rely on public transportation to get around town, his agent is more than well off and drives around a 500 million yen car.
The film’s fight scenes are depicted in CGI, but a consistent tone is kept throughout the film despite its use of two highly contrasting styles. The fight scenes are not exciting interludes to a film with an otherwise somber tone as the monsters are not much of a threat and there are no civilians visible during the fight scenes. The monsters are at such an anatomical disadvantage to Daisato that they almost inspire pity. One monster’s only method of attack is to sling his single eyeball that is connected to his umbilical cord-like stem and is left dizzy and crying after a few attacks. Daisato realizes his own impotence when he is faced with a North Korean monster that is of actual threat, reflecting Japan’s fear of and feelings of defenselessness against North Korea. Mirroring Japan’s declining self-image and feelings of emasculation among Japanese males, Daisato feels that he is unequipped to do his job and attempts to reason with the next pair of monsters that he is faced with as opposed to engaging them physically, resulting in the monsters impeding traffic and creating an publicly indecent scene.
Daisato’s feelings of physical inadequacy and humiliation culminate in the film’s absurdist finale that is even more absurd than everything that has come before it. The frequently hilarious, sometimes surreal, and thematically rich Big Man Japan ends as Daisato comes to understand his own limitations and is forced into his place in the new world.
Author: Robin Kallemeyn
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