In Big Man Japan, a less than faithful documentary aesthetic is deployed to portray the absurd story of a superhero who can expand to gargantuan proportions in order to protect Japan from its odd and psychologically perverse super-monsters. As with most superhero stories, the villains are the more fascinating characters, and the fact that the superhero is ultimately mundane is a big part of the humor. Fascinated with freeze-dried seaweed and travel umbrellas (because they can get big when you need them to), Masaru Daisatou, a.k.a. Big Man (comic Hitoshi Matsumoto), navigates Japan as a middle-class journeyman hero-for-hire. Like Japan’s modern answer to Willy Loman, he is both the country’s emblem of the national “dream” and a pariah. The descendent of a legacy of Big Men, who, aided by electrical charges, grow to Godzilla-like size in order to fight off random and occasionally horny monsters, Masaru is one generation away from the aggressively ambitious, electronically obsessed era of his father, Number 5, and two generations away from his grandfather, the centered and patrician old icon of Japanese age worship, Number 4 (who might suffer from dementia—they’re not sure).
The family legacy is a big one, and the shoes this generation of Big Men inherited are clearly too big for Masaru to fill. Today the superhero-versus-monster fights are televised, and the electricity required to “bake” the hero into bigness is killing the local birds. Meanwhile, the fickle public expects bigger and better entertainment from the street brawls, forgetting the fact that Big Man is saving the nation. How this negative attention effects the man’s government paycheck is unclear, but his life isn’t as comfortable as he’d like and he resorts to selling ad space on his body for viewing during fights. Sponsors pay to have their names plastered on Masaru, so his body becomes a price-per-cut map of his body (he thinks his hip is the choicest “cut”). A snarkier and less dignified metaphor for the degradation (or exploitation) of “The Great Man” is kind of hard to find. Similarly, it’s hard to find a premise so well managed as this one.
Aesthetically, the film ping-pongs between an investigative setup and hyperbolic instructional inserts. A cameraman interviews Masuro as he goes about his daily life: he buys soup, makes lunch, has a rock thrown through his window—all in a day’s work! When a monster appears in the middle of rush hour traffic, we get a snippet tutorial of its dastardly traits—and it’s a good thing, because without explanation, the Baby Monster (maybe the best bit of dark humor in the film) would make no sense at all. Matsumoto excels in his moments of repressed aggression. The simple notion of a society ridiculing and (literally) throwing stones at a man who has the capacity to fight off a Leaping Monster or an unidentified devil monster is a fabulous demonstration of mass immaturity.
The critique of capitalism and its possible relationship to our dearth of modern heroes is a theme more typically played out in grand or epic form, but here writers Matsumoto and Mitsuyoshi Takasu are trading the grand for the gargantuan, the battle-drama for the video game fight. The bigger the story gets the more value seems to seep out of it, as ironically suggested by the film’s conclusion, which looks strongly like a live-action, TV reenactment of a video game with crass melodrama and a kind of good-guys-trump-bad-ones-no-matter-how-gross-the-good-guys-are message. For as light hearted and absurdist as the film is, it does allude some to the future of heroism and, by extension, public good(ness). Masuro’s affinity for stray cats (“What makes them stray? Even if he has an owner he can be stray”) suggests his own feelings of isolation and his outsider status, and also plays upon the old movie cliché that you know someone’s the good guy if meek creatures flock to him. Clearly, the forthcoming definition of a hero will lack any such familiar kindness.