Monster mash-up

Japan's leading comedian makes his grab for the Beta Capsule

It's Christopher Guest meets Ultra Man. Or maybe, Willy Loman vs. Godzilla

Ultra-deadpan and fitfully funny, co-writer, director and star Hitoshi Matsumoto's Big Man Japan is the ultimate midnight movie, a wonderfully weird mockumentary that pays homage to the cheesy superhero vs. monster movies that dominated Japanese cinema during the 1960s and '70s. Trust me when I tell you: You've never seen anything like it.

The movie starts as a straight-faced doc following a long-haired, sad-sack loser named Masaru (Matsumoto), who lives in a cluttered house with a sign over the door that reads "Department of Monster Protection." Bland and inarticulate, his neighbors inexplicably hate the guy, chucking rocks through his window. Then Masaru gets an important phone call and suddenly we're following him on his scooter to the local power plant where jumper cables are clipped to nipples, jolting him with massive amounts of electricity. You see, Masaru becomes 70-foot-tall Big Man Japan, a hero who battles the ridiculous monsters that regularly attack Tokyo, and makes his living tattooing corporate logos on his body, so that they'll be seen during TV broadcasts of his fights.

The only problem is that the public has soured on Big Man Japan, sending his ratings into the toilet. To make matters worse, Masaru's personal life is a wreck: He's divorced and struggling to connect with his 8-year-old daughter while his senile grandfather (a former, more popular giant hero) keeps electrocuting himself so that he can use his enormous size to escape his nursing home. 

Bouncing between investigative documentary footage —following Masaru's pathetically mundane life — and silly, CGI fight sequences, Big Man Japan earns most of its laughs via a rogues' gallery of wacked-out foes, sporting names like Squeezy Baddy, Jumpy Baddy and Smelly Baddy. And while the film offers up a none-too-subtle critique of capitalism and a snarky statement about the absence of heroes in modern culture, its final act follows by-the-book plotting as Masaru must overcome his limitations and vanquish a terrifying new demon.

Matsumoto is one of the top comedians in Japan and his vision is undeniably surreal. He's clearly studied the Spinal Tap formula for mockumentaries and offers a few clever touches of his own — like getting comic colleagues to "play" the monsters. Unfortunately, Big Man Japan goes on about 20 minutes too long and just doesn't deliver the absurdist laughs as relentlessly as Christopher Guest's better work.

Still, even if you're unfamiliar with the Japanese monster movie genre (kaiju) you'll probably have a pretty good time. After all, how much background do you need to laugh at a giant squid-flower monster that emits flatulence with the strength of "10,000 human feces"?

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, June 26-27, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 28. It also shows at 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, July 10-11, and at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 12. 

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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