More a ramshackle collection of setpieces and ideas than a fully formed movie, Big Man Japan is alternatively funny, touching, and baffling. Though not an unqualified success, it's hard to hate something so gleefully bizarre.
Made in 2007, Big Man Japan screened yesterday at Comic Con. Ostensibly a TV documentary, the film follows a few weeks in the life of the title character, the sixth in a long line of Japanese superheroes who defend their country from monsters by zapping themselves with electricity and becoming a hundred feet tall. His predecessors were national heroes, but the current Big Man (played by writer/director Hitoshi Matsumoto) is generally either ignored or reviled by the public. His TV show, long ago a staple of primetime, is now on at 2:40 in the morning, and even the weather gets better ratings, forcing him to tattoo advertisements on his body.
A loser, albeit a loveable one, he spends most of his time drinking, looking after both his senile grandfather and a stray cat, and making fleeting attempts to reconnect with his estranged wife and eight-year-old daughter. At times, the movie almost feels like The Wrestler with Japanese superheroes, and there's some genuine pathos in the character's fumbling efforts to do the right thing, even when he clearly has no natural aptitude for the job. As much as he might fundamentally be a good guy, he still manages to accidentally kill both a child and an old man while in his giant form. The film brilliantly acknowledges the kind of public uproar this would cause, as the initially silly CGI deaths turn into the focus of mass outrage.
Big Man Japan makes good use of the mockumentary format. The unseen interviewer very much becomes a character in his own right, forcing characters to redo scenes so he can get better shots and goading the Big Man into fighting a clearly superior foe. Only the monster fight scenes drop this approach, and even they become increasingly ridiculous. The CGI is intentionally bad, providing a 21st century echo to the fifties monster movies it emulates.
As much as all of these ideas are intriguing (and I haven't even mentioned the giant fart monster sex or all the stuff with the nipples), they never quite add up to a cohesive whole. The movie tackles about twenty different themes, including family traditions, the role of the camera, the fickle public, and the perils of corporatism. A lot is said about all of them, but none of them are ever quite developed completely. The stark shifts in tone between the documentary and monster movie segments prove a little too jarring, as each served to hurt the suspension of disbelief I had built up for the other. The movie's ending is unspeakably absurd, and it's hard to see how exactly it fits in with anything else the movie is trying to say. It might make more sense if I knew more about the complexities of Japanese pop culture, but I found the ending deeply unsatisfying.
Ultimately, however, both the movie's successes (which are many) and failures (which are few) come from the same place: Hitoshi Matsumoto's dizzying willingness to take risks. This is not a film that is ever guilty of underreaching, and it is easy to forgive the misfires of a film so ludicrously ambitious. Big Man Japan is not perfect, but it's hard to imagine a film more delightful in its weirdness.