Big Man Japan

Enjoy the rest live
Hitoshi Matsumoto
Hitoshi Matsumoto, Riki Takeuchi, Ua, Taichi Yazaki
The Setup: 
Strange comedy about the last descendant of a race of Japanese heroes who protect the island against monsters.

A friend of mine at work asked me out of the blue if I had ever seen this, then linked me to the trailer. The trailer shows this huge, Godzilla-sized guy battling monsters of his same size, but these monsters were more bizarre and whimsical than anything you’ve seen in any Godzilla film—and obviously this went right to the top of my list. Turns out the trailer is quite deceptive, however, as between these monster fights, the movie is mostly made up of very quiet, low-energy interviews with the man when he is normal-sized, and even when we get to the fights, the tone of the film remains somber and depressed. This is no laugh-a-minute, overwhelming blast of awesomeness.

We meet this tall, scrubby, reserved man on a bus in Japan. He is very morose and haunted. This is Daisato, played by Hitoshi Matsumoto, co-writer and director of the film. He says he carries an umbrella at all times, and likes them, because they “only get big when you want them to.” He goes home to a dilapidated house, where graffiti saying “Die!” and such things are written on the walls. He continues talking and answering questions while bricks are thrown through his windows. After 10 minutes of this, we finally get the opening credits.

More interview after the credits. He is separated from his wife, and sees his eight-year-old daughter maybe once a month. He doesn’t make very much income, and can’t get any other job, or ever travel, because he must remain always on call in case a monster attacks. While this is going on, he gets a call that he must go “bake,” which means he goes to a power plant, has electricity shot through him, grows to gargantuan size, and goes and fights whatever monster. On the way to the power plant he passes several spray-painted signs, saying “No more explosions” and “You’re big trouble.” He is made huge, then goes to face the monster, which is this bizarre thing that looks like the Michelin man with a thin bowling pin head, with a combover. He stretches his arms around buildings, then squeezes them right off their foundations, and drops them off behind him. These sequences are all accomplished through what looks to US eyes like b-grade CGI. Each monster is introduced with a title card that gives its name and major characteristics. Once Daisato in his large incarnation, called Big Man Japan, defeats the monster, which he does handily, a beam of light appears from the sky and the monster floats up into it. Where the monsters come from, or where they go once defeated, is never explained.

It takes Daisato a few days to return to normal size. All of his fights are televised, but the public doesn’t like him and his ratings have been steadily slipping for some time. His fights are shown on air at 2:40 am. Everyone liked his predecessor, known as “number four” better. Back then the big men were more revered, and this one had servants and was rich. We soon find out that he was also Daisato’s grandfather, who is still alive, and is now senile and in a home. Soon his Grandfather has somehow zapped himself, become huge, and is wandering through the city, forcing Daisato to become big and bring him in before he causes too much damage. In here we’ve also seen two other monsters, one with was just a head atop a giant leg, and a thing that looks like a plucked chicken, with a single eye at the end of a stalk growing from between its legs.

Daisato has a female agent who is always ragging on him, wanting him to wear more and more logos [he wears logo tattoos like a race car]. She is never happy. She has two expensive dogs and a big, nice new car, the implication that she is making most of her money from Daisato, while he lives close to poverty. He encounters a bizarre stink monster, who just hangs out in a desultory way, causing great stink, and a bizarre flower-guy that seems to be on love with the sink monster. Then there’s a giant baby monster that bites Daisato’s tit, causing him to drop it. This kills the baby, and lowers Daisato even further in the public eye. In here also appears a huge red devil-type monster with clubs for hands and feet, that just stomps and beats on Daisato when it gets near him. At last, he just runs away in retreat.

Daisato has a memory that his father tried to attach electrodes to his nipples and electrify him when he was a child, and his grandfather had to save and protect him. We hear a song as Daisato has memories of his father. Then a SWAT team invades his house as he sleeps, complete with television cameras and the implication that this has been set up by the agent. They hook him up to electrodes and force him to get large. He finds his grandfather, also large, and the red devil monster. It kills his grandfather, and soon seems to kill Daisato too. Then we suddenly cut to a cheerful title: “Enjoy the rest live!”

We suddenly transform into this uber-fake city with this Ultraman-like family in red, white and blue suits, called Super-Justice. They band together to beat the red devil monster, now portrayed as a guy in an obvious suit. They attack and brutally rip his red suit off, then join together to zap the peace-beam at him. They all shout “Peace!” in a way that is vaguely threatening. They force Big Man Japan to fly away with them, and we see him being carried away, not entirely seeming comfortable with the whole situation. It ends with a title: “And they all lived happily ever after.” The family bickering over their technique and how the whole fight went, Daisato there but bewildered, plays out over the end credits.

The ending, as you might imagine, is considered crazy, and there is much interpretation as to what it might mean. The leading explanation—apparently supported by the director on his commentary—is that the red devil monster represents North Korea, with whom Japan has had a troubled relationship for some time. The devil defeats the grandfather, perhaps seen as older, traditional Japan’s formerly proud heritage, and its latest, depressed, seemingly pre-defeated incarnation. And who has to come in and save it? The red, white and blue “super-justice” family, who are all scarily perky and shout “justice!” threateningly, then force our Japanese hero to fly off with them. So overall it seems to be a meditation on Japan’s defeated status as a world power, and their uneasy feeling about being a protectorate of the United States.

But let’s not forgot the supremely depressing touch that Daisato’s grandfather was killed, and it looks like he is killed too, before we suddenly shift into this bizarre, chipper non-reality. Furthermore, we have a title informing us that what we’re about to see is “live,” while it’s obviously more fake than anything else, another effective little touch that plays on state-controlled propaganda and media control of information.

So obviously the ending is a big deal, and there are a lot of interpretations of it, but when I asked the friend who recommended the movie, however, he simply shrugged and said “It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just silly.” This, I have to say, is one of my pet peeves. When people pointedly refuse any interpretation of anything, and not just that, but deny that there IS any interpretation to make, or meaning to find. It’s just because THEY are unwilling or ill-prepared to think, and thus assume that it’s not them, it’s that there simply is NOTHING TO THINK. It just means nothing. Of course, luckily in this case we have the director on the commentary telling us it DOES mean something, so we have evidence it’s not just me. Now surely some people OVER-interpret anything, but that doesn’t mean that a great deal of movies [or any kind of artwork] simply have no meaning or intention whatsoever. Grrrrr!

Anyway, all this said, I really liked it, but don’t ever want to sit through it again. I found it to be a massive bummer, devastatingly depressing, and really painful to watch. Daisato is such a depressed character, beaten down so badly by life and abused by those around him, not even appreciated for the monsters he destroys, that it really becomes unpleasant—not least because of the way the film grinds on with its glacial pace and unremittingly bleak tone. And guess what? This is supposed to be a COMEDY. It certainly does have an extremely droll, bitter sense of humor—and who knows, maybe if you’re Japanese and have a better cultural line in to what’s being referenced here, it’s a laff riot—but for the most part it’s grim, bitter humor, the kind that doesn’t make me laugh. It’s kind of akin in one way to the tone of Ghost World—maybe it’s laugh-out-loud funny what’s happening, but it really seems the kind of pathetic, sad humor that is more tragic than anything. The moments before entering the final stretch are unremittingly bleak. That said, there are several people on the IMDB who claim to have been laughing hysterically from beginning to end.

So I didn’t get a lot of laughs out of it, but found it moving and with a lingering impact. Again, I’m sure it has vastly greater resonance if you’re Japanese and have a much clearer idea of the references being made here and what all of this means culturally, but even if not, it’s interesting and moving, though it can be a pretty difficult slog to get there.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, it’s certainly unlike anything you’ve ever seen.