‘Big Man Japan’: Calling All Monsters, By Kurt Loder

Godzilla's children.

Masaru is the last of his line, Japan’s lone remaining monster-fighter. The guy’s a shlub, but then today’s monsters aren’t much anymore either. Back in the day, Masaru’s forebears fought really titanic creatures: Godzilla, Rodan and Gamera; the three-headed Ghidora; the insidious Yog. Masaru has to make do with the dopey Leaping Monster, the risible Strangling Monster — a pencil-necked brute with a bad comb-over — and a nameless behemoth that wields a giant eyeball on a long, lariat-like stalk. It’s pathetic. The job is low on glamour now, too — not to mention money. Although a sign over the front door of his dilapidated house proclaims it the “Department of Monster Prevention,” Masaru travels around in taxis and commuter trains with little attention paid, apart from occasional graffiti addressing him as “Loser,” among other rude things.

We learn all of this in [movie id="349121"]“Big Man Japan,”[/movie] director Hitoshi Matsumoto’s engagingly surreal monster mockumentary. (It’s a 2007 film just released in the U.S.) The movie’s conceit is that Masaru (played by Matsumoto himself) is being trailed around by a TV camera crew, its producer peppering him with questions throughout the day. We watch the dispirited warrior eating a lonely breakfast of dehydrated seaweed. (“It only gets big when you want it to. I like that.”) We see him slumped glumly in his favorite diner, where he always orders “Super Noodles” (and the owner still doesn’t know who he is). But we share his excitement when his cell phone rings, the government alerts him to another monster outbreak, and he takes off in search of an electricity plant where he can “power up” into his gargantuan alter ego, Big Man Japan, emerging in huge purple gladiator trunks and a towering, plugged-in hairstyle. Then it’s off to hunt down the monster of the moment — usually some pesky colossus uprooting buildings and flattening stuff in the traditional earthshaking way. (The movie’s monsters are a fond nod to the rampaging beasties of the old Toho films of the 1950s and ’60s — computerized now, of course, but with endearingly primitive deportment.)

The picture has many droll moments. Masaru’s manager has grown wealthy publicizing her client’s exploits, but she’s worried about dwindling sponsor interest — maybe he should finally offer his beefy and previously off-limits hips for logo placement. When he shows up for a biannual visit with his little daughter (at a Big Boy burger joint, of course), his estranged wife — who left him before he could turn the girl into a monster-fighter herself — is happy to chirp away on camera about the superior virtues of her new lover. And while Masaru’s grandfather, the revered Big Man Japan IV, is now confined to a nursing home, he still occasionally powers up — which, given his terminal senility, makes him a serious public menace.

When Masaru is attacked from behind by a sneaky red leviathan and has to flee to avoid a humiliating beat-down, the picture, already quite strange, grows even stranger, and then much, much stranger still. This is Matsumoto’s first feature (he’s a famously odd Japanese comedian), but it’s a distinctively bizarre piece of work. Remember the name.

Don’t miss Kurt Loder’s reviews of “Drag Me to Hell” and “Up,” also new in theaters this weekend.

Will the vampires grab more trophies than the slumdog? What was the year’s ultimate onscreen WTF moment? It’s up to you to decide the winners of the 2009 MTV Movie Awards. Vote now, and tune in on May 31 at 9 p.m. ET, when the big show airs live from the Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City, California.

For breaking news, celebrity columns, humor and more — updated around the clock — visit MTVMoviesBlog.com.