I have long held a fascination for the “Daikaiju” or Big Monster genre in Japanese cinema, more for the imaginative and often downright wacky design sensibilities that more than make up for often turgid pacing and convoluted plots.
“Big Man Japan” plays with the conventions of the genre but it’s not until almost halfway through what at first glance is a cinema verite documentary on the life of a down at heel Tokyo resident whose life is unravelling through a divorce that you begin to glimpse the surreal background details.
The central character is the last of a long line of hereditary giants called upon in times of dire need, ie when giant “Kaiju” attack Tokyo – revealed in a combination of face-offs between “Big Man” and various monsters and also some well-realized faux archive footage purporting to be from the early 20th Century – footage from the film that was released online to pique curiosity for the film ahead of its international release.
Western viewers may miss or be oblivious of the cultural references in the film, eg the Indian “Tabla” instrument used early on in the film in the score but for me these are recognizable references to shared mythologies, in particular to giants, of which there are notable examples in Indian mythology such as “Khumbakarna” in “The Ramayana”.
“Big Man Japan” is a comedy played straight and like all good jokes, the ending is a little unexpected though there are clues throughout the film, which plays out as if a documentary film crew are following the central character and applying a forensic approach to his life.
The ending may leave you a little unsatisfied since it is unexpected, and provokes questions like “was it all a dream ?” – in this case the dream of a bored “Kaiju” performer waiting in the wings to perform in front of the camera and daydreaming of a possible other life.
You may think the whole film is just an elaborate send-up of the Kaiju genre in particular that takes an inordinately long time to deliver its punchline but I think it is more than that, with the clue being in the title of the film.
Matsumoto’s film is possibly a satire on Japans’ “Big Men” – the politicians and faceless civil servants who manufacture vague national threats – described in the film as “Nuisances” – that only they can sort out, seen here as depicted by an assortment of surreal Kaiju, often an amalgam of man and monster. The pivotal plot detail of the main characters’ divorce and custody issues over his daughter suggest that “traditional” values have been eroded – a metaphor for the pursuit of power by politicians at the expense of the public and to appear as “big men” when they are in fact just “salarymen”.
Another recurring symbol of this is the rolled up telescopic umbrella that the hero carries around with him – an essential piece of kit for the salaryman.
The films’ climax – set seemingly inexplicably in a TV studio where a “Kaiju” show is being made and which at first glance derails the carefully wrought cinema verite documentary that precedes it – features a montage of typical “Golden Age” “Tokusatsu” TV shows, before the arrival of a family of suited, masked superheroes reminiscent of “Ultraman” – complete with a super baby – as “Big Man” cowers behind a cardboard skyscraper, unable to defeat the final Kaiju.
The superhero family are clearly “American”, right down to the design of their costumes and after a prolonged and comical battle they defeat the Kaiju and then beckon to “Big Man” to come over and join them as they collectively raise their arm in “Ultraman” fashion and shout “Peace !” to the heavens before “Big Man” ascends flanked by the super hero family into the sky against an airbrushed backdrop.
This hints at Japans post-war relationship to the United States and the ambiguities of that – it’s as if Matsumoto is sending a clear message that Japanese politicians are clearly not up to the job and are responsible for the neglect of the needs of the Japanese populace, neatly mocked in sequence where the film crew interviews the main character’s ex-wife, a single parent with sole custody of their daughter and with a new suitor in the wings.
The sequence also suggests that “The American Way” will do a better job and that when Japanese politicians screw things up, the United States will be always be the fall-back – a common trope in so many Japanese monster movies right up to the most recent Hollywood “Godzilla” film, “Godzilla – King of The Monsters”.
Even if you don’t agree with that analysis the comic treatment means that the film is full of hilarious moments, such as the point where “Big Mans” beloved grandfather, now in the late stages of dementia and a giant at night who wanders about Tokyo, almost saves the day when he faces the last undefeatable Kaiju, a giant red devil with tiny hands and possibly the least bizarre looking of the other Kaiju that feature.
The film pokes fun at a range of issues, from the support of politicians and political parties by big business, depicted as sponsorship tattoos on “Big Mans” chest or back, and the concerns of his agent, who rakes in money for arranging his sponsorship deals while he continues to live in near poverty in a ramshackle house that he shares with local stray cats and dines on convenience food while being exploited by the military industrial complex for his superhuman abilities.
Worth sticking with before discounting it as yet another Japanese giant monster movie since the first half of the film is a masterclass in a style of investigative cinema verite documentary that creates a sense of contrast between mundane everyday reality and outright surrealism, making it stand out from the run of the mill Daikaiju film.