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?
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.
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.