In 2008, the A.V. Club, the A&E wing of the satiric website the Onion, lit the fuse on “The New Cult Canon.” Inspired by the cults that arose from films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight screenings and repertory theaters, the Onion’s weekly feature considers more recent movies from the video/DVD era such as Office Space and Team America: World Police and argues for their inclusion alongside the cinematic curios of earlier generations.
“The New Cult Canon” should reserve an extra-large pedestal for Big Man Japan, Hitoshi Matsumoto’s compellingly crazy film that’s already cultivating a fan base. Matsumoto offers a post-modern riff on Godzilla-style Japanese monsters, or “kaiju,” specifically the subgenre of space-age heroes like Ultraman who fight the marauders in rubber suits. Big Man Japan’s visionary creativity mostly succeeds, but exists on such a peculiar wavelength that mainstream audiences will find it utterly baffling.
Using the now familiar format of the fake documentary, Big Man Japan offers a camera crew’s perspective on Masaru Daisato (Matsumoto), a downcast Tokyo resident. For a while, the film simply follows him through his mundane activities like riding public transportation and ordering the Super Noodles at his usual restaurant. While interviewed in his shabby house, he answers most questions with a noncommittal shrug. Matsumoto’s performance suggests that Sato’s so emotionally cut off, it’s hard to connect to him enough to feel sorry for him.
With almost sadistic subtlety, the early scenes hint at bigger things to come — angry graffiti looms outside Sato’s home, and a chintzy sign reads Department of Monster Protection. Sato takes his apparent unpopularity in stride and doesn’t flinch when rocks come smashing through his window. But after he takes a call on a cell phone, he explains that he has a job, so he visits a nearby power plant, submits to ceremonial electrocution and becomes Big Sato, aka Big Man Japan, the latest in a line of oversized heroes who defend Japan from monstrosities on the loose.
The drab realism of the “documentary” gives way to cuckoo-bananas battle scenes, with CGI-generated monsters rendered to look like cheap costumes. The filmmaker clearly loves details such as pre-grown Sato standing in giant-sized purple wrestling trunks so he’ll have something to wear as Big Man Japan. Perhaps the electricity explains his sky-high, Eraserhead hairdo. The monsters are mind-bogglingly surreal, such as the Evil Stare Monster, which resembles a giant plucked ostrich with arms and an oversized eyeball on a stalk, which it can throw at assailants like a paddle ball. Another villain sports an incongruous comb-over atop his humanoid head. Interstitial titles identify the creatures and their attributes, not unlike excerpts from a Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual.
Given Big Man Japan’s comedic intentions, it makes sense that the monsters would be zany and unfrightening. It’s almost as though Sato’s era suffers from a lower class of monster. Everything was better in the heyday of his grandfather, Big Man Japan IV. Newsreel-style footage reveals he was a national celebrity whose battles were prime-time hits. Today, Big Sato’s televised monster fights air at 2 in the morning and get crappy ratings. Big Man Japan satirizes fame and celebrity, particularly when Sato’s disinterested agent tells him, “I found a sponsor for your chest, so try not to fold your arms from now on.” We gradually piece together Sato’s failed family life, which includes a daughter he never sees and a senile grandfather. His attempts to protect the city involve increasing levels of property damage and scandal.
Big Man Japan resembles Hollywood’s superhero spoofs, with the inspiring genres of both countries occupying similar niches in pop culture. Big Sato calls to mind the washed-up, bottom-feeding champions of Hancock or Mystery Men while echoing The Incredibles’ theme of nostalgia for the glory days. Perhaps the tone of bitter nostalgia for bygone times strikes a chord in films like these, because their fantasy tales parallel the experience of clinging to traditionally childish genres as an adult. Superhero or monster fandom seldom shines as brightly for grown-ups as it does for kids.
When Big Sato and a monster start bickering like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” characters (“Stop poking windows like that!”), Matsumoto’s faux-documentary format begins to unravel. And even by Big Man Japan’s already bizarre standards, the last 10 minutes take an insane turn that seems guaranteed to leave audiences confused and frustrated, although it draws on the film’s family themes and its source of inspiration. Big Man Japan stands out among Japan's many idiosyncratic pop artifacts; the kind that you gape at with thrilled disbelief. And so a cult is born of electricity and memories of rubber-suited monsters.
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