"Big Man Japan": Big is Beautiful By Alf Kjetil Walgermo

in 17th Oslo Films From The South

by Alf Kjetil Walgermo

In his first film director Hitoshi Matsumoto reveals a remarkable humoristic talent. That should probably not shock those who are familiar with Japanese TV comedy. Matsumoto and his childhood friend Masatoshi Hamada formed the comedy duo “Downtown” in the 1980s. Big Man Japan (Dai-Nipponjin) is one of the most refreshing films I’ve seen in a long time. Partly documentary, partly mockumentary, partly science fiction and partly monster movie. Matsumoto’s work is both absurd and incredibly diverse.

The story is unfolding slowly during the first 30 minutes. We meet Masaru Daisatou — played by Matsumoto himself — in a film which seems to be a documentary on his everyday life. He has broken up with his wife and likes to eat power noodles. Questions are asked directly from the man filming with a hand-held camera; Daisatou mumbles when he answers, sharing thoughts about folded umbrellas: “I like how they get big when you need them.” After half an hour this sentence gets an additional meaning. Daisatou receives a mystic phone call, and there soon follows a fascinating twist of genre; suddenly we’re thrown into the midst of a monster attack. A big creature called Squeezy Baddie attacks the skyscrapers of Tokyo, Daisatou himself has been powered up to become 30 meters tall: He is Dai-Nipponjin, a superhero fighting the computer generated Baddie. It’s quite hilarious. The monster, the first out of many, eventually loses the fight against the big man in purple underpants. Dai (meaning “big”) has yet again saved Japan from harm. But the citizens really don’t care; ratings are low.

It’s pretty unclear whether this is happening in real life or not. Soon we get to know that Dai really is the star in a popular TV show. But the threads are not pulled together.

Matsumoto also wrote the film’s screenplay, together with Mitsuyoshi Takasu. Matsumoto manages to keep up the interest for almost the whole film — it is perhaps a bit too long, almost two hours. But what is he trying to tell us? Is he only joking? Is it media criticism? Frankly, I don’t really know, but the film leaves the doors open for different interpretations.

Dai’s grandfather, mainly referred to as “The Fourth”, is still important to him. The Fourth was Dai’s predecessor as the Big Man, but is now in a home for elders. Still: Before the two hours have passed, granny has also been powered up to fight baddies — with not much luck.

Both funny and interesting is the fact that everything seems so usual to the main character himself and the people around him. Matsumoto plays it like Bill Murray’s younger brother from Tokyo. Dai possibly becomes indifferent to his own life doing all the power-ups: one could say, lost in translation.

At some point during the film, the “documentarist” says to Daisatou: “I don’t understand you!” I’ll guess that many viewers would say the same thing after watching this strange mixture — even I am not quite sure I got it. But the kind of neo-gothic irony also makes sense. The commentaries on different aspects of modern society come tighter than the pack of baddies. One example: Dai Nipponjin’s big body is being used for commercials. Therefore, his agent is glad when Dai at some point is running away from his strongest enemy: Everybody could see the sponsor’s logo on his back!

The film is packed with jokes, and most of them are funny. The potentially emotional parts also get messed with; nothing is sacred for Matsumoto. When Daisatou sees his daughter on her birthday, she’s pixelized — a claim from the mother. The ending is just as absurd as the rest of the film, but seems to cast new light on what has been going on at the TV show. Do not be too sure, though: Matsumoto’s main idea is to amuse and surprise. I think he succeeds. Overall, Big Man Japan is an original, humoristic and interesting work. It could be big not only in Japan.