Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Film Review - 'Big Man Japan'

A bizarre parody of an already occasionally bizarre genre, Big Man Japan takes the the entire concept of Japanese Kaiju films (in which, basically, a giant monster shows up and starts smashing stuff. They don't tend to be all that complicated) in an unusual direction.

For much of the film, what we are actually watching is a slow, and somewhat sedate, mockumentary-style film exploring the day-to-day life of the poor sap whose job it is to fight off a variety these giant creatures - our Kaiju super-hero, Daisato (Hitoshi Matsumoto). Daisato is the latest in a long line of 'Grand Men' - super-powered individuals responsible for protecting Japan from of bizarre creatures. Thanks to their natural ability to transform into giants, themselves, when subjected to a strong enough charge of electricity, these 'Grand Men' have been responsible for protecting Japan for generations.

While Daisato's predecessors were celebrated as national heroes, though, Daisoto, himself, is barely tolerated by the people of Japan. The energy that it takes to bring about his transformation is enough to power a whole city for an entire night - which leads to protests of wasteful use of energy. His battles are so rare, and thought to be so dull, that televised screenings have been shifted to an after-midnight time-slot that few bother to watch. Also, he is so poorly paid that he has had to resort to hiring an agent to arrange sponsorship deals. And, finally, when a monster that does pose a significant challenge finally makes an appearance, Daisato's first instinct is to flee - leading to accusations that he is a coward, on top of everything else.

Daisato is a reluctant hero, at best. He is a weary burn-out who seems to view his job as an unwanted obligation - and, the mockumentary-style interview segments goes to great lengths to explore all aspects of this man's life, occasionally in genuinely depressing detail. His hope that his young daughter may, one day, take over his role has led to his wife leaving him - and, now, he rarely has the opportunity to see either of them. He has become so accustomed to the border-line contempt that the people he protects hold for him that the sudden occurrence of a rock being thrown through his window is barely enough to break his train of thought. And, of course, he is almost constantly broke - despite the importance of his role.

Honestly, these interview segments are probably where the film is at its best. The humour, here, may be of a darker, and more subdued, style that is rarely likely to draw out any genuine laughs - but, there is a dryly sardonic quality to it all that I definitely enjoyed. It is true, admittedly, that some of these conversations may drag on a bit longer than they truly need to - but, they still manage to inject an otherwise absurd film with, at least, a semblance of reality.

Unfortunately, though, when Daisato is finally called into battle, things aren't quite as successful. Here, the entertaining 'slice-of-life' mockumentary style is replaced by some surprisingly crude CGI, and some truly bizarre creature design. First, we have a creature that is, basically, just a giant head on top of a giant leg - and, who seems to be quite happy just hopping about. Then, we have a creature wielding what, disturbingly, can only really be described as a giant eye-ball on the end of an extendable penis. And, that's not even mentioning the two squid-like creatures that Daisato is unable to prevent from having sex in the middle of the city, or the harmless, though still genuinely creepy, monster baby.

I'm not sure how all of this sounds in writing but, in practise, it all just started to feel like a bit too much for me. It felt like too jarring a shift in tone and style - and, while I was on board initially, each new encounter with one of these strange creatures pushed things a little further.

Then, there's the film's ending - a truly baffling moment in which the crude CGI of every previous 'Kaiju' moment is suddenly replaced by live-action. For reasons that I still struggle to comprehend, the film's final scene is one in which we find ourselves treated to actors in ridiculous costumes stomping around a cheap set. With the increasingly cringe-inducing moments which led us to this point, this would have to be where the film lost me, entirely. But, by that point, it was almost over, anyway.

To be fair, though, there are some truly great moments in Big Man Japan. The various interview segments, both with Daisato and with various bystanders and witnesses, are all played surprisingly straight - with the realistic and grounded performances of talented actors only seeming to enhance the subdued humour as the most bizarre subject matter is discussed. An argument between Daisato, himself, and his agent regarding where, on his body, he should allow advertising to be placed during his fights made for great parody (even if the whole 'sponsored super-hero' idea has been done before). The unnamed interviewer interrupting the ritual performed before Daisato's transformation, asking them to repeat a few lines while he films from a better angle, provided me with one of my few genuinely laughs throughout the film. And, also, the bizarre sight of Daisato standing naked, while straddling a pair of giant underpants, that had been suspended ready for him to grow into as he transforms, was exactly the sort of imaginative strangeness that I was hoping for more of as the film began.

In the end, Big Man Japan was a strange experience for me. I was aware, going in, that it was going to be an odd film - after all, how could it not be, considering its basic premise? But, as things progressed, it seemed to slowly shift from a brand of strangeness that I could accept to one that I struggled with. As much as I enjoyed the film at the start, and as much as I wanted to keep enjoying it, I could almost feel myself turning against the film as I watched. In the end, the only conclusion I could draw is that, perhaps, I just don't understand Japanese humour.

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