This is certainly an unusual take on kaiju eiga, the Japanese giant monster movie. It starts as a fly-on-the-wall documentary about stumbling sad sack Masaru (writer-director Hitoshi Matsumoto), a depressed, downtrodden middle-aged man with long hair who lives alone in a messy house, eats seaweed several times a week, dresses like a tramp and rarely gets to see his bright young daughter. He’s also unaccountably unpopular, shrugging as stones are thrown through his windows during a rambling, self-pitying interview and pointedly surrounded by graffiti or protesters decrying his littering, noise pollution and wastage of energy. Then, a call comes in and he reports to his job – being zapped in a ritual at a power station and growing to giant size (with an Eraserhead hairdo, purple trunks, mystic tattoos and stuck-on adverts) to fight ‘baddies’, weird-looking giant monsters which periodically plague Japan.
Masaru is the latest Dai-Nipponjin, sixth in a line of national protectors, and the tradition has seen better days. Once, Dai-Nipponjin was a great hero with a huge support staff, a ton of merchandising, high ratings and embodied Japanese pride; now, he’s little-seen, broadcast in the middle of the night and more people complain about him or laugh at his failures. A nasty red devil monster from North Korea is in town, and seems to be much more fearsome than the usual run – easily beating Dai-Nipponjin and prompting him to run away, afraid of a rematch. The hero’s screw-ups include killing a harmless baby monster, failing to prevent the public mating of a pair of smelly grotesques and, in the climax, accidentally murdering his senile but still giant grandfather (Taichi Yazaki) when the former Dai-Nipponjin tries to pitch in and help. The monster scenes are truly weird, with creatures who evoke the buzzsaw-in-the-stomach brand of Godzilla sparring partner (the female Smelly Monster is oddest), but much of the film deals with the sullen, mildly resentful, careworn civilian Masaru coping with his daily round, including meetings with a chipper agent (Ua) who sells ad-space on his body and guarded exchanges with an ex-wife (Shion Machida) who doesn’t want their daughter following in the family tradition.
A coda which segues from the realist, CGI-augmented world of the mock-doc to a parody of UltraMan with stuntmen in padded costumes wrestling on miniature sets as an American family of heroes show up to batter the Red Devil to death as Dai-Nipponjin stands uselessly by – he also sits quietly at the table as they squabble under the long end credits. It’s such a slow-burn film that it’s hard to ‘get’ on a first viewing, and a lot of cultural specifics pass me by completely. Matsumoto doesn’t try to make his useless hero at all sympathetic, and there’s a streak of cruelty as Dai-Nipponjin clumsily makes things worse for people but is never able to see beyond his own petty miseries to notice what he’s knocked over, trampled or killed.