Big Man Japan -- Film Review

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Your affection for old-fashioned monster movies will help determine your tolerance for "Big Man Japan," the feature debut of writer, director and star Hitoshi Matsumoto. Defiantly offbeat but only intermittently funny, this low-budget comedy is about as cult as they come. Home video prospects look stronger than theatrical.

The story opens as documentary filmmakers interview Dai Sato (Matsumoto), a quiet, mild-mannered divorcee. Turns out that Sato also is Dai Nipponjin (literally "Big Japanese Person"), a superhero called on by the government to battle the oversize monsters who periodically attack Tokyo. The Big Man's approval ratings are at an all-time low because of his exorbitant electricity usage and his tendency to cause as much physical damage as his enemies. Neighbors have strewn his modest suburban home with graffiti and trash, and placards call for his banishment.

Despite efforts by his agent (Ua) to strike new endorsement deals, Sato leads a precarious existence, reduced to riding trains and buses to power plants in order to undergo transformation into his alter ego. Armed only with a stick, he faces off against adversaries like the Evil Stare Monster or the Stink Monster, generally getting the worst of his battles. Hapless whether big or small, Sato is haunted by the self-destruction of his father and by his grandfather's far greater success as a hero. (Fake documentary footage of the 1920s Big Man is superbly done, as is the CGI in general.)

Reportedly six years in the making, "Big Man" is a one-joke idea stretched out to feature length. Mining the same territory as "Hancock," "The Incredibles" and countless comedies about sad-sack losers, Matsumoto nails his premise, finding a perfect balance between deadpan and absurd. One-half of the comedy duo Downtown, Matsumoto is a top-notch performer but a poor judge of narrative. His film ambles along aimlessly, adding details without developing characters, repeating plot twists without resolving them. The finale, a sort of deconstruction of the Power Rangers universe, is filmed so off-kilter that it fails to generate any laughs.

Those who remember the old Toho Studio films starring Godzilla, Mothra and their ilk might appreciate how Matsumoto has reworked their themes and settings. But "Big Man" is never as funny or entertaining as its predecessors, and it fails to make much headway as a critique of Japanese society either. (Famous for his practical jokes, Matsumoto bills himself as "Matumoto" throughout the credits.)

Opens: Friday, May 15 (Magnet Releasing/Magnolia Films)
Production: Yoshimoto Kogyo in association with Real Products
Cast: Hitoshi Matsumoto, Riki Takeuchi, Ua, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Itsuji Itao
Director: Hitoshi Matsumoto
Screenwriters: Hitoshi Matsumoto, Mitsuyoshi Takasu
Producer: Akihiko Okamoto
Executive producers: Isao Yoshino, Hiroshi Osaki
Director of photography: Hideo Yamamoto
Production designers: Yuji Hayashida, Etsuko Aikou
Music: Towa Tei
Editor: Soichi Ueno
Rated PG-13, 119 minutes
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