We probably overuse terms like “bizarre”, especially when reaching for adjectives to describe some of the more colourful corners of Japanese popular culture. If American superheroes are treated with square-jawed earnestness, and given deconstructive exercises that extend only so far as grumbling about the heavy burden of their duties, Big Man Japan sets about the similar task of upending the mythologies of the kaiju eiga (giant monster movie) with a wicked sense of the absurdity of the whole situation. It spoofs it’s target genre with something approaching affection, but primarily pokes fun at it not by mimicking its excesses and taking them a little bit further into comic extrusion, but by juxtaposing the ordinary with the fantastic and showing them to be aesthetically, tonally and, by extension, purposefully incompatible.
Big Man Japan is meant to look a bit like a documentary. I say “a bit”, because they haven’t taken too much trouble to simulate the details of documentary – the unpredictable, incidental distractions, the downtime or the misframings and stumbles that have preoccupied other mocumentaries looking to create the impression that this is not prepared in advance to articulate a fictional agenda, but instead unfolds regardless of the presence of the camera. Most of what we see are to-camera interviews with the protagonists, who usually seem politely accommodating of the camera, occasionally betraying signs of disinterest or irritation. Our hero’s manager texts while she’s being interviewed, while other subjects mumble their answers, or give them up carefully.
We gradually learn that the main character, Masaru Daisatô (Hitoshi Matsumoto) is also a part-time giant warrior, like his father and grandfather before him. Periodically, when the authorities summons him for a mission, is escorted to a power station and zapped with a massive dose of electricity that inflates him to gargantuan size. He then does crunchingly brutal battle with a series of grotesque titans that threaten the city. His kind used to be celebrated as iconic national defenders, but these days they’re taken for granted as threats to traffic flow, and made to wear sponsorship banners on his chest. His battles are sold for broadcast, suggesting that he enjoys some level of renown, but outside of the combat scenes, he deals with more mundane concerns with his ex-wife and his estranged daughter. If he has a Bruce Wayne/Batman existential struggle, it’s only because his superheroic status is out-of-step with his more customary routine of taking public transport or having his dinner.
The sense that this is a documentary account of the everyday life of a giant superhero comes from the static, halting quality of the interview scenes, and from mocked up archive footage, newspapers and merchandise that stitch this para-mythology into the history and post-history of Imperial Japan.
Scenes of boring quotidian existence are juxtaposed with lurid, brightly-coloured and intense showdowns with a set of disparately talented enemies. These scenes have such a burst of freshness that comes from their complete tonal separation from the rest of the film. Check out one of them here:
These scenes are all CGI, and visibly synthetic, but they mimic the pastel-coloured sets of Toho studios miniature sets in an affectionate way. The creatures are diverse products of a psychosexually disturbed imagination, their anatomies like tortured inflations of modern neuroses; see for example the balding elastic man who pulls down buildings with hooped arms that lasso a skyscraper like a massive comb-over (above), or the skinny, naked giant eye-on-a-genital-stalk thing (below). This combination of the mundane and the fantastic makes for a compelling mix that does the work of critiquing the interrelationship between myth, culture, reality and representation without you having to do too much hard thinking about it. By analysing the ways in which a nation might be asked to dream of itself as a culture under attack, its history fading from memory and eroded by the disinterest of its younger generations, Big Man Japan does serious work in comic disguise.
[There is an unexpected conclusion that overturns everything that has gone before. I don’t want to reveal it, but if you’ve seen the film and would like to discuss it, please post a comment below and let me know what you think.]