Big Man Japan puts me in an awkward state of affairs. In theory, it represents the perfect film, one that takes a conventional subject and dares to do something different with it. But it does so with such banality, with such scant consideration towards pacing or tone, I can’t help but deem it a letdown as massive as its title character. To recommend or not to recommend? That is the million-dollar question with Big Man Japan, a film you have a good chance of not liking, but, because of its unique structure, it begs not to be missed.
You’d think saving the world would bring you fame, fortune, and the adoration of the masses. But try telling that to Daisoto (Hitoshi Matsumoto), who has even worse luck than Will Smith’s Hancock. Daisoto is the latest in a family of superheroes; whenever monsters invade, it’s his job to power up and transform into the gigantic Big Man Japan. But the damage resulting from his battles cuts no ice with the public, who’ve also begun to flee from his televised fights in droves. Daisoto’s personal life is an even bigger wreck, with a daughter he gets to see twice a year and an ex-wife (Shion Machida) who doesn’t want to see him at all. But although his world is in the pits, Daisoto persists in trying to save it, confronting the most bizarre creatures ever in hopes of doing some good for the family name.
On first glance, Big Man Japan looks like what would happen if Christopher Guest went on a week-long Godzilla bender. Presented in a faux documentary format, the film tails Daisoto as he goes about his everyday routine. Through this perspective, we see that saving Japan isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, though don’t expect similarly gut-busting insight. Some key scenes are fittingly wry (such as when Daisoto chats up a stubborn foe), but the rest sorely lack consistency. The film’s sense of humor is extremely dry, to a point at which I wondered if it was even supposed to be funny. The potential for satire is endless, but it goes unchecked by Matsumoto (who also serves as director). Big Man Japan reminded me most of Ronin Gai, a film which demystified the samurai just as this does the superhero. But rather than pay tongue-in-cheek homage to the genre, Matsumoto seems keen on delivering its eulogy, with all the warmth and enthusiasm of Steven Wright to boot.
That Big Man Japan is so keen to cast a morose eye towards its premise is strange, as there’s a lunacy presiding over the production that indicates a much peppier mindset. Someone had to have been on narcotics when they devised the film’s monsters, a hilariously impractical rogue’s gallery ranging from a fire-breathing devil to a head on a foot. It’s enough to set a kaiju buff’s heart aflutter, but, determined to deprive the film of any and all fun, Matsumoto depicts the Big Man’s battles with little energy to speak of. These scenes represent more missed opportunities to play against genre cliche; the most Matsumoto does is slap an ad on Daisoto’s torso, which grows stale the twentieth time the gimmick is used. All of these flaws are rendered all the more aggravating because of the moments that Big Man Japan does lapse into genius. When he puts his mind to it, Matsumoto brings out the funniest and even most touching aspects of his rather novel concept; to see him flip the story on autopilot so often is nothing short of blasphemy.
For all its flaws, though, Big Man Japan displays more originality than you’re likely to get from an average visit to the local megaplex. It may not always be on the ball, but at least it attempts something a little off-kilter, to provide a subversive take on the superhero blockbuster. Big Man Japan is more admirable for its intentions than for pulling them off, but you can bet your bottom yen that you’re not likely to see anything like this for a long time.