Big Man Japan (大日本人, Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2007)

big man Japan posterBeing a superhero is not all it’s cracked up to be. After all, with great power comes great responsibility and responsibility, well, it’s kind of a drag. The debut feature from comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto, Big Man Japan (大日本人, Dai Nipponjin) is the story of a modern day gladiator – a slave and a prisoner, forced into an arena to fight “monsters” intent on causing widespread destruction, but usually being the cause of that destruction himself. Poor old Daisato (Hitoshi Matsumoto) is not much of anything at all, but bears all of his respective burdens with stoic resignation.

Shot in mock-documentary style, the film keys us in to Daisato’s predicament slowly as he lovingly looks at an umbrella or a packet of dried seaweed before adding that he likes them because they “only get big when you want them to”. The fact is, Daisato is the sixth in a line of superheroes known as Big Man Japan. Every time disaster strikes and there’s a scary looking monster about to pound Tokyo, Daisato has to hightail it to the nearest power station, undergo a lengthy, bizarre, and completely pointless ritual before jumping into a giant pair of purple pants and being pumped full of electricity which eventually causes him to grow to colossal size.

Yet unlike Batman, or even the obvious point of inspiration, Ultraman, Daisato is not particularly public minded and submits himself to this unpleasant treatment out of a sense of duty and tradition. Daisato’s grandfather, the Fourth, was the kind of superhero everybody loves – strong, clever, dependable, but more than that he was a fun guy to be around. Under the Fourth, superheroing was a laugh and a mini industry all at once. Asked why they bother with the strange ritual before Daisato transforms (given that they’re pushed for time), the old timer looks wistful and remarks that everything was much better when Four ran the show.

These days Four (Taichi Yazaki) is a doddery old man with dementia whom Daisato leaves in an old people’s home whilst feeling guilty about not being able to look after him. Occasionally Four goes rogue and causes havoc by beating up innocent buildings and generally destroying things that don’t need to be destroyed. Daisato maybe a monster fighting superhero but he’s no match for Japan’s ageing population and the increasing demands of elderly care.

Daisato bears his responsibilities with resignation rather enthusiasm. His father, unlike Four, had a lust for fame, repeatedly zapping himself to try and be bigger and stronger but eventually just zapping himself to death. Yet even whilst unhappy about being forced into his life of mercenary monster hunting, Daisato still wanted his kid to take over the Big Man Japan name – only his kid’s a girl who doesn’t actually like her dad very much and gets picked on at school for being the daughter of Japan’s most rubbish reality TV star. Daisato’s superpowers have led to the breakdown of his marriage as his wife has left him, unwilling to allow her child to be zapped with electricity and sucked into Daisato’s abnormal world. She’s moving on, going with the mainstream and looking to hook up with a decent, reliable sort of guy.

Even the documentary maker occasionally seems exasperated at Daisato’s passivity and general malaise. The monster hunting battles are not just in service of protecting the people of Japan but also a major TV event, though it has to be said that Daisato is not very popular and the few people who like him do so precisely because of his perseverance in the face of constant failure. Daisato has a manager of sorts, who drives expensive looking cars, has two expensive looking dogs named “simplicity” and “delicacy”, and is intent on selling each and every spot in Daisato’s giant torso to advertising sponsors landing him with tattoos advertising fresh goods right on his chest and back. Eventually Daisato ends up angering the public still further when he kills an incredibly cute, apparently harmless monster in a moment of panic.

Daisato is, in many ways, a victim of his culture as he feels compelled to put up with constant mistreatment in service of duty and tradition, seeing himself as the last in a long chain of ancestors he’s never been able to live up to and whose powers he will probably not be able to pass down to a successor of his own. In one particularly worrying episode, the mysterious forces which control Daisato do not even bother to contact him but break into his house for a spot of non-consensual zapping which destroys Daisato’s entire home leaving him with nothing. Being big in Japan is actually being very, very small. Poor old Daisato can’t seem to catch a break, but maybe there is one just waiting to catch him.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Symbol (しんぼる, Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2009)

kinopoisk.ruSymbol (しんぼる) – one thing which stands for another, sacrificing its own nature in service of something else. Hitoshi Matsumoto waxes philosophical in his follow up to Big Man Japan. Life, the universe, and everything converge in the seemingly unrelated tales of an unsuccessful Mexican luchador, and a confused Japanese man trapped in a surrealist nightmare. As expected, these two strands eventually meet, though not quite as one might expect.

The Mexican desert, a chain-smoking nun drives erratically towards a small house in which there lives a lucha libre wrestler by the name of Escargot Man (David Quintero) who has a big fight coming up but is worried because his opponent is much younger and stronger than he is.

Meanwhile, at an undisclosed location, a Japanese man wakes up in a pair of colourful polka dotted pyjamas inside an entirely white room. The man screams and rails but gets no reply. Eventually he notices a strangely shaped protrusion on the wall and taps it, at which point a host of tiny cherubs swarms around him before returning to the wall leaving only their tiny penises poking through. The man taps more penises and a host of objects begins to flood the room, each more useless than the last until the man begins to concoct a plan of escape.

Matsumoto lets his Mexican opening drift on indefinitely before abruptly cutting to the bright white walls of the mysterious room. The Mexican vistas are warm, wide, and open as the three generation family fret over the masked father’s destiny as a luchador with grandpa comforting the youngest who finds himself bullied over his dad’s profession while the mother is concerned by her husband’s nervous mood.

The mysterious room, by contrast, contains only a lone Japanese man even if just as strangely dressed. Matsumoto does not skimp on the surrealism as the man is bombarded with a series of totally useless accessories each time he presses one of the penis switches attached to the wall. Beginning with a toothbrush, the man is gifted a bonsai tree, hundreds of chopsticks, a sun lounger, toaster, and so on, each lacking any concrete purpose for his new life in the room save making him both more comfortable and also more frustrated. Irony rules as he receives a sushi lunch with no soy sauce only for a bottle to appear as soon as he’s finished, or he’s presented with the next-but-one volume of a manga he’s been reading but remains eternally unable to acquire the missing book. Eventually he finds a method of possible escape, conducts various trial and error attempts to make it work and then discovers it only leads to a second round gamesmanship with his invisible tormentor.

Unbeknownst to the man, his actions have consequences which begin with the improbable story of the Mexican wrestler and then flood around the world as he keeps tapping switches before literally ascending to a higher plane of existence. Random events are, perhaps, the result of a random button pusher in a far off land, trying and failing to escape his own captivity. Or then again, maybe he is us, endlessly tormented by unseen forces, desperately looking for a way out but left with no other mechanism than trial and error. We follow him through “learning” to “practice” and eventually to “future”, though what he learns through his strange evolution in an Escher-like world of inescapable repetition is debatable.

Strange, absurdist and defying interpretation, Symbol is a surreal escape game played on a universal scale. Matsumoto’s message is permanently unclear and possibly a long form joke, but its playfulness and somehow goodnatured attempt at cosmological exegesis is one which evokes a puzzled smile or exasperated laughter more than irritation at its appropriately obilque coda.


Currently streaming on Mubi.

Original trailer (dialogue free)