By Scott Mendelson
Big Man Japan is the rare picture that has such a delightful premise that it would hardly matter if the film worked or not. Fortunately for fans of offbeat, quirky cinema, the picture does maintain a certain down to Earth charm. This Japanese import is a genuine original and actually works as a comedic deconstruction of the Japanese monster movie genre, much as Hancock operated as a skewed take on American superhero sagas (for the record, this film was released in Japan in 2007, a full year before Hancock). While the picture never aims for the emotional heights of that Peter Berg gem, it is awfully funny, with a surprisingly potent bit of social commentary just underneath the quirkiness.
A token amount of plot – This mockumentary concerns the exploits of one Daisato (Hitoshi Matsumoto), who appears to be your every day middle-aged slacker. But his actual occupation is one of great importance to Japan. Whenever a monster attacks, Daisato rushes to a government facility, where he is shocked by bolts of lightening, transforming him into a several-stories high giant, capable of defending the fair citizens of Japan from monstrous peril. The latest in a long family line of monster fighters, Daisato is treated not with the reverence of his predecessors, but with scorn and ridicule by a populous who complains about property destruction and noise. In short, Big Man Japan is about a superhero who is viewed as anything but by family and bystanders alike.
That’s all you need in regards to the story. Like a Charlie Kaufman comedy, the film is shot in the usual mockumentary style, giving a realism and deadpan feel to the out of this world storytelling. While the special effects are crude, they are absolutely appropriate for this material and are exactly as good as they need to be for this kind of film. Director Hitoshi Matsumoto never goes for the easy joke or the cheap laugh, instead building a certain sympathy for this pathetic would-be champion. The acting is always above board and no one ever winks or acknowledges the absurdity of this situation. The picture takes its time developing its primary characters in between the comical monster mashes, which makes the smack downs that much more rewarding. The film slowly develops into a sad tale of a pathetic and lonely man who exists only to engage in crowd-pleasing battle royales with various life-threatening adversaries. Yes, the film is a bit long, but the token emotional investment is a welcome note from a film that could have been a campy one-joke comedy.
Big Man Japan is a true delight, a charming variation on any number of beloved genres. It is probably one of the more original films you will see this year, both in concept and in execution. It is funny, thoughtful, and occasionally touching. While probably destined for limited theatrical release, it is just the sort of picture to attain cult status once it hits DVD. Big Man Japan is just plain big fun.