Dai-Nipponjin (Matsumoto Hitoshi 2007)


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Dai-Nipponjin [Dai Nippon Jin]

Genre: Traditional Kaijuu Deconstruction
Director: Matsumoto Hitoshi (2007)

review in one breath

Masaru Daisato is a 4th generation Japanese superhero. His father, Grand Father and Great-Grand Father before him had protected the Japanese Islands from ultimate destruction at the hands of various monsters (kaijuu) rising from both land and sea. Unlike his ancestors, however, who were nationally heralded as beloved heroes and were often invited into the Imperial Palace, Masaru's personal life is in shambles. He is divorced, has little income, and in the eyes of many contemporary Japanese is far less spectacular than the historical hype suggests. The film Dai-Nipponjin is a documentary following Masaru's mundane daily life and superhero responsibilities in an effort to understand the man behind the legend.


intro

First off, I confess I am a great fan of Hitoshi Matsumoto. He is one half of the prolific Japanese comedy team "DownTown" and is easily one of the most successful and funny comedians on Japanese television.

Matsumoto, along with partner Hamada Masatoshi created the duo DownTown in 1983 and since then have been the sources of a very unique and raucous brand of comedy. One of their primary characteristics is their thick Osaka dialect which to Tokyo-ites sounds both brutish and quaint, conjuring images of old school yakuza and the culturally invaluable Kansai region (which includes Kyoto, for example).

The film Dai-Nipponjin represents Matsumoto's debut as director of a full-blown theatrical film. On his side, of course, are both his already significant influence in the Japanese media industry and a truly massive nation-wide fan base. These two factors by themselves can easily become a recipe for disaster if such an influential, financially backed and popular director has at core nothing truly creative to offer audiences. But with Dai-Nipponjin, Matsumoto clearly delivers something not only truly unique and entertaining, but also something whose meaning can be unpacked, contemplated and appreciated.

Matsumoto's comedy team "DownTown" has been the source of a number of groundbreaking themes. Perhaps one of the most entertaining has been their "Punishment Game" (Batsu Gamu) in which the show's core members must endure a 24-hour period in a clever, ridiculous environment without laughing. Every laugh receives a "punishment" which involves something painful. YouTube is full of their folly. Here's a snippet of one such game in which the punishment is a blow-dart needle to the buttocks. (Its untranslated, but you'll quickly get the picture! ha.)


From it's earliest days, one of the more long-running and predominant theme of skits from "DownTown" has involved what can rightly be called the "deconstruction of super heroes". Since the inception of his comedic debut nearly 15 years ago, Matsumoto and his team have thoroughly enjoyed depicting their rendition of the off moments in a super hero's life. On screen and in anime, of course, such heroes seem to have no personal defect nor is there any hint of dysfunction amongst the hero team. But even in the early stages of Matsumoto's world, we are privy to the developmental and often dysfunctional aspects of these greater-than-thou personalities. Although many popularly beloved characters fell victim to this deconstruction, one of the longest-lived DownTown skits involved the "5 Rangers", a wholly transparent parody of the once wildly popular and colorful "Power Rangers". Here's a very weird snippet for you, portraying the period in which the "5 Rangers" were trying to figure what costumes they would wear as superheroes. The villain is unwilling to take them seriously until they get their act together which from the looks of it won't be anytime soon.


OKAY, so enough distractions. But what is both important and helpful to realize when approaching Dai-Nipponjin is that this EXACT theme of this film, namely "super hero deconstruction" is something Matsumoto has been exploring and honing for nearly 15 years. Of course the brief comedic sketches can only be goofy and superficial. But we can now say, without a doubt, that over those many years, Matsumoto has given this specific topic a great deal of thought, not only in terms of comedy, but also in terms of impressively deeper currents pitting traditional sentiments against their contemporary, often foreign-borne rivals.

Matsumoto plays Masaru Daisato, the last in a long line of traditional Japanese super heroes. In times of national need, he and his ancestors had been called upon to battle various strange kaijuu, those enormous monsters which step on cars and knock over sky scrapers in so many early Japanese films. Whereas his ancestors seemed to live in a Golden Era for the Dai-Nipponjin, in which they were lauded with national praise and celebration, Masaru's personal life is testimony to the fact that times and national interest have changed. Matsumoto's depiction of the nearly anonymous, run-down and all-too-human Masaru is truly striking and conveys a real sense of how pitiful a character he is. This is undoubtedly Matsumoto's Opus Magnum in terms of showing the less-than-glamorous private life of a traditional hero.

plot

A documentary film crew follows the otherwise unremarkable Masaru Daisato in an effort to gain insight into his personal life and the unique responsibility his lineage has left him. In far earlier days, Masaru's Great-Grandfather was called upon by the Emperor Himself to aid in times of national crisis. The Elder Daisato accomplished this by suddenly becoming hugely enormous, the Dai-Nipponjin, for a short duration during which he could battle the many kaijuu threatening the Islands. This "ability" was passed down from father to son for four generations, which brings us to Masaru in the present day.

Unlike his nationally beloved predecessors, Masaru receives no calls from the Emperor. He is not invited to banquets in the Imperial Palace, nor is he triumphantly paraded down avenues lined with adoring fans. Times have changed and with them the popular consensus of what a "hero" is. When asked about their thoughts on the existence of a 70-foot man, most contemporary people respond, predictably, with "creepy".

And this is the age of Mass Media. Its not like the old days where a super hero's success or defeat was a cumulative process of several battles. No. Here, even the slightest weakness or defeat is immediately distributed to the masses via bold headlines of publications small and large. To compensate for the lack of popular and Imperial support his Elders enjoyed, Masaru is reduced to seeking endorsements from major commercial and nationally popular sponsors, whose emblem he must wear during his next bout with an unpredictable kaijuu.

With the cooperation of a small contingent of traditionalists and access to the now dilapidated science centers his ancestors once used, Masaru continues to fight the Good Fight and encounters several unique and formidable kaijuu foes. HIs winning streak is commendable until a rather diabolical, foreign monster descends upon Tokyo.

verdict

This is definitely one to see and with a little noise on our part will likely become available in a Region 1 subtitled version.Dai-Nipponjin was shown at Cannes 2008 and received the following blurbs by those in attendance:

-- "Matumoto has, quite possibly, the most incredibly deadpan approach to absurdist humor in the history of the world." (Twitch)

-- "Dai Nipponjin has to be, hands down, the strangest picture in Cannes this year. (Variety)

-- "There are some films that simply defy description. There are some films so packed with extra-colorful weirdness that you could write 1,000 words and still not cover it all. And then there are films like Hitoshi Matsumoto's Dai Nipponjin (aka Big Man Japan) -- which is most assuredly a combination of those two descriptions." (Cinematical)

Admittedly, a lot of what audiences will see here consists of "inside jokes" which fans of DownTown will surely recognize. Most of the traditional kaijuu depicted here bears resemblance to comedians or personalities frequently appearing in the show. And as mentioned above, the entire scenario of a humanized super hero is firmly grounded in the history of DownTown.

Its clear that those unfamiliar with the show will still thoroughly enjoy this film, and it is indeed unique. At worst, those who don't see the common threads between the film and show will be left scratching their heads at time, perhaps most notably in the film's final act.

spoilers ahead

For this reason there has been some bewildered discussion regarding the the drastic cinematic change in the film's final scenes, from high-end CG effects to old school, low-tech rubber suits and cardboard cityscapes. I've read some reviews which suggest Matsumoto perhaps ran out of money at the end or that his creative ideas somehow run into drought in the final 15 minutes.

But this is precisely why a little background, even the modicum I offered you above, serves a MAJOR purpose. Anyone even remotely familiar with Matsumoto's decade-long work will realize that "deconstruction" (at least that's my term for it) is the name of the game here.

One type of deconstruction involves the "Dai-Nipponjin" celebrity in its de-evolution from prior glorified days to the present. The film is full of historical discrepancies between the nationally embraced heroes of prior generations and the flat-out apathy the modern-day Masaru receives. Even the name of the film expresses this gap. The term "Nippon" is an out-dated, pre-war pronunciation of the more modern "Nihon". Both terms mean simply "Japan" but they belong to wholly different eras. "Nippon" suggests a nationalistic flare and pride, while "Nihon" is simply a lack-luster descriptive term. So it is no mistake when the film portrays contemporary Japanese as referring to Masaru as "Dai Nihonjin" and his more exalted ancestors as "Dai Nipponjin". At a core level, this film and its title "Dai-Nipponjin" deal specifically with contemporary Masaru's ability to live up to his ancestors' (Nipponjin) reputation in a post-modern Japan.

Another layer of deconstruction involves the relatively stable hierarchy of traditional japanese kaijuu and the sudden introduction of an unannounced foreign and more powerful variety. A new Bad Guy appears out of nowhere, a slit-scowled, broken-horned hell boy which proves to be Dai-Nipponjin's most formidable and perhaps final foe. Although Masaru and the public are baffled by the origin and power of this foreign demon, audiences are privy to the fact that it is the result of the fanatic prayers of recently (Christian) converted Korean prayers for divine justice against the Japanese. Here again, the Shinto-Era magnificence of his ancestors is juxtaposed with a Post-Shinto enemy against which lone-soul Masaru appears utterly helpless.

This shift from traditional to more powerful contemporary kaijuu is then extended to include a new type of super hero, the glittery, suave, and blond-haired super team which swoops in from the West and easily vanquishes the demonic threat. It is this scene which is shot in ridiculously low-tech, placing Japanese audiences back in early genre monster films, the difference being that both the monsters and saviors are of the new variety. The kaijuu genre in Dai-Nippojin is thus brought full circle back to its origins of rubber suits, toy cars and ply-wood cities. But the fight depicted here, as well as the heroes and villain, have clearly transcended the traditional genre. This is made clear by Masaru and his alter-persona Dai-Nipponjin being rendered completely obsolete by the film's end.

But even here, the deconstruction does not end. Behold the dialogue taking place during the ending credits in which the new, seemingly indestructible super family becomes the latest target of "off moments" revelations. It is hilariously reminiscent, intentionally so, of the DownTown skits from which this all began.

Version reviewed: Region 2 DVD (no subtitles)

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Clever and entertaining deconstruction of the traditional Kaijuu genre. Hilarious damage done to a bizarre assortment of monsters (and their underwear). Kaijuu apparently lack enormous genitalia. Brimming with Major Strangeness. I doubt you'll see another film like this one.

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