Part of the joy of being a fan is finding odd and obscure gems that you end up falling in love with. For every Batman, there is a Darkman. For every Star Wars, there is The Black Hole. Here at Fandom, we like to go hunting for some offbeat and off-the-wall films and TV shows that might just become your own secret treasures. Strap yourself in and expect the unexpected, because this week’s Weird Watch is the 2007 Japanese mockumentary Big Man Japan (Last time: Inland Empire)
If you were to walk in on someone watching the first five minutes of Big Man Japan, you’d expect to be in for a Guestian mockumentary. Christopher Guest’s films are absurd at times, sure, but overall, the premise of each is firmly rooted in reality. Not so for Big Man Japan. The film follows Masaru Daisato (a combination of Dai, “big,” and the family name “Sato”), a seemingly ordinary, middle-aged Japanese man who has the ability to turn into a 30-meter-tall giant all for the purpose of battling monsters that plague Japan.
Big Man Japan is a send-up of Japanese tokusatsu monster films and superhero serials. Like Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” it paints doing something many would see as extraordinary as routine, and often boring, work. And it’s really, truly weird.
He Who Fights With Monsters
Big Man Japan‘s strength is the relatability of the titular Big Man. Famed TV comic Hitoshi Matsumoto pulls triple duty as the writer, director, and star of the film. He imbues Daisato with a middle-class malaise. The hero of our story is separated from his wife, subsists on cheap noodles, and he wishes he earned a little bit more from his thankless government job. Daisato is what happens when Shinji Ikari grows up.
No matter his importance, the people of Japan hate Daisato. His home is completely covered in graffiti, and vandals often smash out his windows. As the camera follows him, passers-by gawk at Daisato on the street. But his notoriety is not universal: the man who serves noodles down the street from Daisato’s house has no idea that he’s the “Dainihonjin.”
To transform into his giant size, Daisato receives massive electrical shocks directly to his nipples. This looks as uncomfortable as it sounds. The ritual itself and Daisato’s handlers, are definitely chuckle-worthy and play up the campy elements of tokusatsu fare.
Tomoji Hasegawa, playing the narrator of the documentary, asks his subjects very probing, and sometimes flatly rude, questions. We never see him on screen, but he is without a doubt the most important character in the film. The answers he receives reveal a lot about the world and its people. His funniest sequence is when, during a Shinto ritual meant to imbue Daisato with his transformational power, he interrupts the proceedings and forces everyone to go back to get a better take. He exposes the absurdity of it all while at the same time treating his subject with care. It is, in short, an excellent mockumentary.
Becomes a Monster Himself
Where the film starts to fall apart are during the monster fights. The conceit is that the fights are televised for the whole nation, and Daisato’s ratings are abysmally low. Watching them play out, I can see why. Except for a sequence introducing the characteristics of each monster, there’s nothing particularly television-y about them. There’s no voiceover or narration, and everything is done in CGI that has not aged very well. It’s enough of a break from the mockumentary format that the first time you see a fight, the transition ruins the illusion of reality.
But, boy, are the monsters weird. First, he fights a kaiju with giant, cord-like limbs and a very unconvincing comb-over that strangles buildings, suplexes them, and then lays eggs in the ruins. Armed with only a large stick (because, you know, budget concerns prevent any more effective weaponry), Daisato squares off against the beasts.
Weirdest of all is a giant female stink monster that comes out of hiding to mate and cannot escape the unwanted advances of another gigantic, fleshy beast. She eventually relents. Things end poorly.
Each battle leaves Daisato even more of a pariah. There are some redeeming elements of humor, however. The creatures are goofy, and to make ends meet, Daisato sells space on his giant, mostly-naked form to advertisers. His agent brokers these deals, and from the look of her car, she likely takes the lion’s share of the net profits.
There is one legitimately terrifying monster that bloodies our hero and factors hilariously into the film’s brilliant final sequence. The violence in the earlier fights is cartoonish, but when American Hero Super Justice and his family arrive, suddenly the film switches to a more familiar model cityscape we’ve come to expect from the kaiju films of days past. Super Justice and his family are brutal. They deliver an unrelenting beating to the monster. It is humorous in that uncomfortable way that The Office is funny. While it’s excellent parody, the change comes out of nowhere. It makes you wish that the rest of the monster fights had been filmed in a similar fashion.
To be frank, Big Man Japan is a little depressing. Daisato’s estranged family resents him for his line of work, and he hardly sees his daughter. We learn he wants nothing more than for his daughter to carry on the family legacy but his ex-wife is firmly opposed to the idea. He is the sixth in a line of defenders of Japan, and he spends a lot of time lamenting that he wasn’t born into the golden age of this work, like his grandfather. The best giant, naked Japanese dude action comes when Daisato’s grandfather, The Fourth, breaks free of his retirement home and rampages across the country causing minor mischief.
Daisato has a remarkable affection for his grandfather because the old man saved him from an abusive father. The flashback sequence that shows this encounter is a little heavy for a comedy, but it serves the movie by showing a legitimately noble side of Daisato and his otherwise silent grandfather.
For all it’s strangeness and short-comings, Big Man Japan succeeds in exploring some interesting themes. It assesses the effect of legacy and how parents can make or break their children. More importantly, it explores how identity and the need for self-preservation can lead to us telling some pretty big lies about who we are just to survive.
When you watch Big Man Japan, you may come for the monsters, but you’ll stay for the social commentary. And for cute old men playing with airplanes.