Movies & Dreams Part 1: Big Man Japan

6 11 2009

bmjSomeone (Erik?) described Big man Japan as “The Spinal Tap of Godzilla movies.” That’s a perfect description. The movie is about Daisato, who is a normal guy most of the time. When a giant monster threatens Japan, he heads to the nearest power station, gets zapped, and becomes a pudgy giant with Eraser Head hair and a ludicrous little club. Most of the film follows Daisato (or Sato, I suppose, Dai meaning giant) going about his daily life. His grandfather was a popular giant guardian, but Sato is seen as a nuisance. In between battles, he ignores rocks thrown through his windows, tries to connect with his estranged wife and daughter, and fights with his agent over sponsor tattoos.

All in all, a superbly crafted satire of the daikaiju genre. I found it profoundly disturbing. I don’t what that says about the film, or about me. Part of it is coincidence. If you apply Daisato’s vertical hairstyle to the Superfriends and the original cast of Star Trek, you have images from my worst childhood nightmare. It sounds silly described in the light of day, but in its sheer sense of wrongness it remains the most frightening dream I’ve ever had. Add to that the surreal, dreamlike quality of the monster battles, which begin and end in highly disjointed fashion (echoing the trademark choppy editing of traditional monster movies). All the monsters have human faces, making them infinitely more creepy than Ghidorah. And Daisato is essentially enacting the classic bad dream scanario, running around in towering visibility in his underwear. His CGI giant face has an inhuman life, a more animal intelligence, more suited to his usual silence than his spoken confrontation with the Stink Monster. At which point, by the way, the visual gags begin to cross the line into body horror.

The final scene is astonishing, and narratively ambiguous, and probably hilarious, but for me it was pure nightmare. If you don’t want me to spoil it, skip the next paragraph. You’ve got the gist of things by now.

Up until the end, all giant characters are computer animation. In the final showdown, they are actors in suits, in an obviously artificial miniature city. The transition is marked by the appearance of the Super Justice family, a group of American giants who look like disco-sitcom versions of Jet Jaguar. Daisato, now the actor playing Sato in a puffy muscle suit and vertical wig, crouches stoically amid the skyscrapers, hiding from his nemesis, the Red Monster. The Red Monster, who was quite scary in CGI, is patently ridiculous in suitmation, as if even the costumers have too much contempt to put more than cursory effort into his creation. He offers no resistance as Super Justice and his family gleefully, systematically abuse him. Daisato is humiliated from beginning to end; cowering behind buildings, failing to add anything to the group-generated power beam, pooping his pants when the SJs fly him away.

It’s likely I over-identify with silly monsters. One of Lynda Barry’s writing exercises is to identify “your monster” and write about it. Her example is the gorgon, which she found especially frightening as a child because of a resonance with her mother. I have always loved monsters, but never found them scary. My conclusion from the exercise was that rather than externalizing my fears or anxieties, monsters suggested to me a powerful existence within alienation. I’m sure there’s all sorts of hay to be made of that, but I only bring it up to explain my reaction to Big Man Japan, which seems out of balance with the movie’s intentions. Or maybe not. If you like monsters, or satire, or Japanese pop culture, you should see it for yourself.

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