Review: Go behind the scenes with a man who becomes a monster in Big Man Japan

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

If Christopher Guest made a Japanese monster movie, the end result might be Big Man Japan. A transgressive if not entirely successful deconstruction of one of the country's most successful sci-fi subgenres, the film takes a look at the life of a man who transforms into a superhuman monster, in the process both sending up and paying tribute to the heroes and villains audiences have watched and worshipped for decades, from Godzilla to The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

Co-writer and director Hitoshi Matsumoto stars as Masaru Daisatou, an unassuming 40-year-old whose job is to occasionally be transformed into a 50-foot-tall monster. Using state-of-the-art technology as well as a gigantic pair of stretchy pants, Dai is literally electrocuted until he grows in size, and then descends on some nearby Japanese cityscape where other creatures—called "baddies" by the populace—have decided to wreak havoc or otherwise be a nuisance. But when a red-faced monster proves to be more than Dai can handle, he begins to come to terms with the fact that his services, although unique, may not be as useful as they once were.

Big Man Japan operates on several different levels, primarily as a documentary-style breakdown of Japanese monster mythologies, but also as an actual monster movie, a character study, and a sociological deconstruction of the genre itself. Godzilla was itself an artistic response to post-WWII Japan, but 50+ years later, Matsumoto's film is more interested in the artistic culture that film begat, and the way in which monsters are both a positive and negative signifier of each generation's priorities.

For example, Dai comes from a long line of men who transformed into monsters, and "newsreel" footage shows how deeply his predecessors were revered. By comparison, Dai is both a champion and comic punchline, as his interview sessions with the never-seen documentarian are often interrupted by rocks people throw through his living room window. Further, the filmmaker himself is not only intrusive but judgmental about Dai's occupation, chronicling his many failures both as a man and a monster, and essentially editorializing about Dai's lifestyle with other participants.

The result of this sort of personal and social commentary is a fairly heartbreaking character study, even if Dai himself invites a similar judgment from the audience. But aside from its unnecessary length—almost two hours when a tight 90 minutes would do just fine—the film's biggest problem is that it abandons the narrative arc of Dai's life and turns in its final scenes into a comic riff on the updated iconography of Japanese monster movies. Specifically using the family dynamic of shows like The Power Rangers to further highlight how he is at best a product of a bygone era, Matsumoto offers a hilarious but too loosely attached action-filled finale that provides Dai neither with a badly needed triumph after so much humor-filled tragedy, nor even a sort of cathartic conclusion to his story.

Then again, perhaps becoming an ancillary character in a story about your own advancing irrelevance is a catharsis of sorts. But it's not one that feels organic to what's previously happened, and it's certainly not one that is satisfying. Ultimately, Big Man Japan is a really interesting and unique take on an entire subgenre of films that we've all sort of looked at as silly entertainment, but it doesn't quite know how to merge the thrilling and the thoughtful in a way that pays both off. In which case it seems appropriate to say that Hitoshi Matsumoto's film is well-made, thoughtful and engaging, but its true success may come later when someone else takes its ideas and does them better, if not also bigger.