We are now, I think, well into the post-modern phase of superhero stories, where making such a thing automatically counts as commentary on the very genre it inhabits. These things have been done straight so many times there’s almost no choice left but to throw the audience a screwball. Good, I say.
Big Man Japan lobs a screwball that’s a parody of a superhero genre peculiar to Japan, but which has enjoyed overseas success at least in part for its camp value. I speak of sentai, those shows where people transform spontaneously into fifty-foot-high dispensers of justice, wrestle with guys wearing foam-rubber lobster costumes, and knock over miniature scale models of Tokyo on backlot sets. Here, the parody is nothing more than taking everything that happens on these shows to their cruelest and most logical extreme. If we did have such superheroes, wouldn’t they be getting slapped with massive lawsuits every time they went to town on the Monster of the Week?
Once upon a time, he was Japan's Hero. Now he's their babysitter,
or maybe just their nuisance mascot.
BMJ explores this idea in the form of a mock-documentary about one of Japan’s few remaining superheroes. He’s a shaggy, unassuming-looking fellow named Daisato (written with the characters for “big” and “helper”, ho ho), who lives in a grotty single-level house and would like nothing more than for his wife and daughter to move back in with him. When giant monsters show up, he’s zapped with fifty skidillion watts of electricity and transformed into a building-high version of himself with hair straight out of Eraserhead. No superpowers for Daisato, though: the only weapon he has in his arsenal is a baton. Most of his tussles with the creatures that come his way play off like bad wrestling matches: he seems to feel bad for these creatures, not genuine righteous anger, and so this leads to scenes like the one where he gets into a shouting match with one of the beasts for loitering (and creating a public nuisance).
I found myself laughing at a lot of things here. Not just at the goofy satire of Japanese big-monster movies, which is the easy target, but something a little subtler and more insidious: the way Japanese society closes ranks against people who overturn the apple cart, even if it’s allegedly in the name of their general good. With fewer monsters to fight, and public sympathy for his work waning, Daisato’s like that guy in the office who doesn’t do any work and yet whom the boss doesn’t have the nerve to fire outright. All he really wants to do is get back together with his wife and kid, but she sees him as being more dangerous than any of the beasts he’s tangling with. He’s also surrounded by people who have no faith in him: his advertisers pull out, his Princess-Dragon-Mom agent clashes bitterly with him, his senile old father monsters out and runs around town causing havoc.
The movie's wicked sendup of rubber-monster-movie conventions
disguises a lot of sly jabs at Japanese society in general.
All of this leads to an ending so unrepentantly bizarre I have no choice but to talk about it here in detail, so skip over if you’d rather watch and be flabbergasted on your own. A climactic scene where Daisato is tangling with various monsters stops in mid-donnybrook, and then the whole style of the film switches to a Kamen Rider-style, guys-in-obviously-zippered-suits-trashing-a-soundstage homage/parody. There, Daisato finds himself a bewildered participant in the action: this is how his day job might unfold in his dreams, in a world where people actually gave a damn about him — but even his capacity to fantasize about how it could be better seems to have dried up. (Watch the no-less hilarious scene that unfolds over the closing credits.)
It took me the better part of several months of meditating on that last scene to figure out what those last bits all meant. I was tempted to write it off as director Hitoshi Matsumoto taking the Takashi Miike / David Lynch way out: when you can’t go up or down, tango sideways out of the picture. But there was more to it than that just odd for odd’s sake: it was a way of commenting on how they had just spent a movie de-mythologizing a whole genre that lives and dies by its mythology. Most satires of this sort of material only stop at the first floor. Big Man Japan rides all the way up to the roof.