Hitoshi Matsumoto’s “Dainipponjin” – 2008 NYAFF & Japan Cuts Review

A hilarious and inventive kaiju eiga repurposed for the modern media landscape, “Dainipponjin” showcases the considerable talents of its writer-director-star Hitoshi Matsumoto.

It begins as a rather odd mock-documentary about 40-ish loner misfit Dai-Sato (Matsumoto), whom a camera crew follows as he goes on ordinary, quotidian tasks. There are little hints of something stranger going on, such as the sign outside his door that reads “Office of Monster Prevention” and the obscene graffiti spray-painted on his wall directed toward Dai-Sato. A brick is thrown through his window as he is interviewed by the crew. Eventually these odd details are explained when he goes to an electrical plant, where he is juiced by massive amounts of electricity and blown up to literally monstrous proportions.

Now a towering figure dressed in purple shorts and sporting an Eraserhead-meets-Kid ‘n’ Play haircut and product-placement tattoos, he fights a series of monsters in epic televised battles, bashing them with a stick. Alas, his fights are quite unpopular; the late-night home-shopping show regularly trounces him in the ratings. His opponents are perhaps the strangest motley crew ever assembled in the annals of monster movies: the Leaping Monster (a head – that of popular actor Riki Takeuchi – and a single leg); and the Stink Monster, which emits a stench equivalent to 10,000 piles of human feces; the Evil Stare Monster, with a single eye hurled as a weapon.

Dainipponjin (“Big Man Japan”), as he is known in his battles with the monsters, is victorious at first – until a mysterious unidentified foe with red skin kicks the crap out of him, causing him to run away and making him even more of an object of public ridicule. Dai-Sato’s problems don’t end there: he frequently clashes with his manager (pop star Ua) over her indifference to him as a person, and who seems to regard him as little more than a money machine feeding her taste in expensive cars and clothes. He is divorced and estranged from his daughter, and his grandfather (who was also a monster fighter) languishes in an assisted-living facility.

“Dainipponjin” has a remarkably controlled tone that treats its outlandish premise with a hilariously deadpan seriousness, creating a rounded character that has a level of poignancy. In contrast to the love the public showered on his fighter forebears, Dai-Sato is treated with contempt and derision by his audience, who sees him as an irrelevant and outdated nuisance.

Matsumoto, a popular comedian in Japan, spent six years writing and directing his feature debut, and it is mostly a successful one. The film is marred only by the fact that the pace sags a bit in the midsection as the premise becomes repetitious and begins to wear a bit thin. However, it redeems itself with its deliriously absurd denouement, a last-minute rescue that is the cherry on top of the madness.

“Dainipponjin” screens at the IFC Center on June 21 and at Japan Society on July 4 as part of the New York Asian Film Festival and the Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film. Tickets may be purchased online from the IFC Center or the Japan Society.