Big Man Japan: DVD Review

BIG MAN JAPAN is built around a funny concept, vaguely akin to HANCOCK: its title character is a superhero who is a bit of a loser. Of course, being a Japanese superhero, he periodically grows to enormous size (courtesy of electricity applied to his nipples) and confronts monsters attacking urban areas around the country, often with hilariously deadpan results. Unfortunately, the concept is not enough to sustain the entire film; in fact, the gambit ultimately backfires, the humor at times turning to tedium.
Filmed in a documentary style, BIG MAN JAPAN alternates between computer-generated monster battles and long interview segments in which Daisato (director Hitoshi Matsumoto) comes across as just some guy doing a job, with nothing particularly interesting to say, barely able to formulate answers to the questions he is being asked. This leads to some interminably long stretches of screen-time while viewers eagerly await the next monster to arrive, each one preceded by a narration that matter-of-factly expostulates upon the new foe’s characteristics (“Such are the features of the Strangling Monster).
There is much to enjoy, espeically for fans of Japanese giant monster movies and superhero television shows of an earlier era. BIG MAN JAPAN makes it clear that Daisato is a remnant of a once-proud tradition that has fallen on hard times; the public isn’t proud of him, and his televised exploits are relegated to late-night hours when no one is viewing (until he gets badly beaten – and the ratings jump).
There is also a weird and pretty much inexplicable switcheroo near the conclusion. A title card tells us that we are going to a live broadcast of Big Man Japan’s latest battle, and suddenly the CGI is gone, replaced by live-action miniatures and suit-mation, with deliberately bad fight choreography (described repeatedly by one of the partipants as “crappy”). It’s a fun nod to ULTRAMAN and similar shows (the obvious antecedents for BIG MAN JAPAN), but the sudden stylistic switch comes so far out of left field that it leaves viewers baffled.
Those seeking understanding of the processes that went into this decision are not likely to find it on Magnet Releasing’s DVD. The widescreen transfer and the Japanese audio track (in Dolby 5.1 and Dolby 2.0) are good, and there are options for English or Spanish subtitles, but the bonus features are, frankly, boring and uninformative, consisting of Deleted Scenes and “Making of Big Man Japan.”
Although the title “Making of Big Man Japan” suggests a documentary, what we get is more like a series of B-roll vignettes, spliced together, with the camera sitting in on development meetings or watching the cast and crew take the finished film to Cannes. You can watch the making-of with an additional audio commentary, but this provides little information. For example, BIG MAN JAPAN’s last-minute switch from CGI to live-action is mentioned but not really discussed (we are told there were some discussions or arguments about the decision, but not the substance of those arguments).
The Deleted Scenes are somewhat misnamed; a more appropriate moniker would be “Extended Scenes.” At over an hour in length, they are enough to try the patience of all but the most dedicated kaiju fan, but combined with the “Making of Big Man Japan,” they are informative on one level: we learn that first-time director Hitoshi Matsumoto seemed unwilling to yell “Cut,” resulting in takes that run for twenty minutes of aimless question-and-answer dialogue. Two or three minutes of this stuff was more than enough in the final cut of the film; viewed at full length, the scenes seem merely interminable.
However, there is one brief but memorable shot of an actress in a bizarre prosthetic, suggesting that her breasts have been electrocuted with jumper cables from a car battery. How this would have fit into the film, we cannot say, except to presume she was trying to become Big Woman Japan.

Big Man Japan – Kaiju Film Review

The Stench vs. The Pudge: A Stink Monster (Takayuki Haranishi, left) Makes Acquaintance with Ambivalent Hero Dai Nipponjin in BIG MAN JAPAN
The Stench vs. The Pudge: A Stink Monster (Takayuki Haranishi, left) makes acquaintance with ambivalent hero Dai Nipponjin (Hitoshi Matsumoto, right) in BIG MAN JAPAN

Welcome back to kaiju world: big, honkin’ monster attacks Japan, big, honkin’ hero comes around to kick butt. Only in this case, the hero, Dai Nipponjin (literally “Great Japanese”), is a pudgy, lumbering klutz with an electrified, fright wig hairdo that makes him look like a cross between Jim Belushi and Eraserhead. He’s reviled by the public (one person hilariously grouses that the national savior has “lost his edge”), and, off duty, lives as the hang-dog Daisato, an unmotivated schlub with cross-generational family problems and an insatiable appetite. Where’s Gojira when you really need him?
That Doesn't Look Like a Hunger for Adventure: Matsumoto as the un-embiggened Daisato
That Doesn't Look Like a Hunger for Adventure: Matsumoto as the un-embiggened Daisato

Director Hitoshi Matsumoto — who also stars in the title role and co-wrote with Mitsuyoshi Takasu — alternates BIG MAN JAPAN between mockumentary footage of Daisato’s travails as reluctant hero (the transformation scene, complete with gigantic Speedo, is one for the books), and surreal battle scenes that tease the line between rubber-suit tradition and visionary, cojones-out CG (my favorite adversary: the Strangling Monster (Haruka Unabara), a sort of ambulatory scallion with a comb-over). The feel is appealingly dead-pan, and the structure is loose, at times more resembling sketch comedy (Matsumoto — a self-proclaimed hyoi-geinin, or “spiritual entertainer” — got his start as part of a comedy duo). When that leads to sequences like those where Dai Nipponjin argues with a petulant “stink monster” (Takayuki Haranishi) or consoles an endearing/repulsive child monster (Ryunosuke Kamiki) — with disastrous results — that’s all to the good. It’s pretty damn funny, actually.
All of Japan is defenseless against the attack of a rampaging... uhhhhhh... a voracious... ummmmm... Hmmmm...
All of Japan is defenseless against the attack of a rampaging... uhhhhhh... a voracious... ummmmm... Hmmmm...

But it can also be a trap. When the film eventually devolves into a full-on satire of cheapjack kaiju television, you may be left wishing that Matsumoto had orchestrated a more emotionally satisfying finale for his protagonist, rather than leaving his audience wondering whether the director’s budget, patience, or both had just run out. Stay, in any case, for the closing credits, which answer in perhaps too-painful detail what happens when superhero teams get together for a nice family meal and post-battle analysis. You’ll never again dread Thanksgiving dinner.
BIG MAN JAPAN (Magnet, 2007; 113 mins. In Japanese with English subtitles.) Directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto. Cast: Hitoshi Matsumoto, Riki Takeuchi, UA (sic), Ryunosuke Kamiki.