MAY 17, 2009
I’ve never been a big fan of old school Japanese monster movies (i.e. Godzilla). I mean, I get why folks like em, but unless he’s knocking down buildings and fighting other monsters for the entire movie (no plot, no human characters, no message!), I got better things to do. However, Big Man Japan (Japan: Dai-Nipponjin) sounded too great to ignore: a “documentary” about a man whose job is fighting these monsters, which in Japan are commonplace. Brilliant!
And at times it is. Not only is the humor very dry, which is just how I like it, but there are scenes that left me damn near hysterical with laughter, because they were so outlandish and yet on the surface, humdrum. For example, at one point he has to take care of a monster that is waiting to mate. It’s not really harming anyone, but it releases an odor that allegedly smells as bad as 10,000 human feces, so naturally no one wants him around. Big Man Japan tells it to leave, and the two argue. It’s just like something you might see on a particularly low-key episode of Cops (“You’re trespassing!”), but the fact that it’s between a 20 story monster and a 20 story guy in purple underwear makes it a delightfully strange and hilarious sequence; a monster “fight” without any actual violence. And while they sometimes go a bit too long with it in between monster fights, the stuff with Big Man Japan as a normal sized adult, just doing his thing, are often pretty great as well. He lives a pretty simple life, and takes everything in stride (he is not a very popular hero, for reasons that are never quite made clear). The “documentarians” will often try to get him to tell an exciting story, but he’s content with talking about seaweed or his umbrella.
The movie also has what may be the most horrifying visual I’ve seen in a genre film in the past 10 years. BMJ needs electricity to grow into giant man size, and the electricity is conducted via his nipples. It’s not so bad in the present day, but a flashback to the first time he had this done has some botched results, and the image hits lamprey fingers levels of “GAH!”
What keeps the movie from being an A+ classic, however, is the rather botched fight scenes. They are done with purposely cartoon-y CG, and I don’t mind that so much (it’s supposed to be a documentary; a guy in a suit would look way wrong). What I DO mind is that in these scenes you never see any pedestrians, cars, buses, etc. I love the concept that monsters are a common thing in Tokyo, but the film never really visualizes this (i.e. a monster smashing stuff while nearby folks ignore him). In fact, the hardest I laughed thru the entire movie was during the film’s one shot of a monster interacting with normal sized beings (his foot is blocking traffic and he kicks one of the honking cars, but he does so out of frustration rather than any sort of malicious intent).
Also, there are some go nowhere plot threads. We start getting the impression that his agent has been stealing money from him (she buys new cars, but he’s supposedly only making a couple thousand a month), but she never gets any sort of comeuppance. There is a scene where the documentary guys do some “man on the street” interviews, but there should have been a few of them, to get a sense of how BMJ was faring with the average man as different events in the film occur. Also, the ending comes out of nowhere and yet goes on too long as well, without even the slightest hint as to what the hell is going on (it’s also fucking hilarious, but still, I would gladly sacrifice a few laughs for a conclusion that wraps up the storyline).
Speaking of the ending, my best guess is that it’s some strange dig on the Americans. The whole movie has been CGI, but then, before the shift, a message says “We now bring the final battle LIVE!” or something to that effect, and instead of CGI we get men in suits and cheesy models. So - Japanese style = real? But the other heroes in the scene are obviously American, and they save the day, so I dunno. At any rate, it just not a very smooth transition, and taking 105 minutes to set up a 10 minute punchline seems a bit counterproductive.
Still, you can’t dismiss how it manages to be low-key and ridiculous at the same, not to mention that the concept is nothing short of brilliant. I read a while ago that Trey Parker and Matt Stone were making a movie on the same lines (an American family goes to Japan and discovers that monsters and such are real, and that the Godzilla films and their ilk were sent to warn us), but I don’t think they are still making it. So watch this instead!
What say you?
P.S. Los Angeles based readers - you know that earthquake that hit around 8 o clock tonight? I was in the theater for it! It didn’t happen during a monster scene, but it was still pretty epic to be watching a monster movie and feel the ground literally shake beneath you. Also, most folks in the theater had no reaction to it whatsoever, which kind of fit into the film’s “it happens” attitude. Also it proved I did a good job hanging some art in my apartment earlier in the day, because they didn’t fall down.