Deadpan surrealism from one of Japan's best-known comedians. Very odd.
The film is a mockumentary about a loser, played by Hitoshi Matsumoto. His wife has left him, he's not particularly good at his job and people throw rocks through his windows. He's not very interesting to talk to. He lives with a cat in a shabby house covered with graffiti.
The reason he has a camera crew following him around is that he's a superhero, albeit a very Japanese one. Every so often he'll get a phone call to hop on his motorbike or catch a train to wherever the latest 100-foot freakazoid is wreaking havoc. Matsumoto's a stand-in Godzilla, basically. Once he's arrived, the government will pump a gazillion volts through his nipples and thus make him grow to a similarly outrageous size. His job is to defend Japan, armed only with monster purple underpants, a 20-foot iron pipe and the hairstyle you'd have too if the government electrocuted your nipples.
Like I said, odd. Incidentally the writer, director and star is half of possibly Japan's most famous 'manzai' comedy act, Downtown. This film isn't nearly as funny as I'd expected, but it's definitely an experience.
For starters, it's constantly flirting with boredom. A main point of the film is that Matsumoto is a bit rubbish and that there's nothing heroic about either him. He's not a bad person and he's doing an under-appreciated job, but it's not hard to see why his wife left him. His life is either drab mundanity or anti-heroic fights against monsters that are weird even by Japanese kaiju standards. Yes, I'm familiar with Ultraman. Nothing he does makes him look good. He fights badly against monsters that then defeat themselves or cause massive property damage. He gets into arguments with them. He might decide to run away. Unsurprisingly the public think he's a dork, if not even a public menace, although it's hard not to think that they're taking him for granted and would soon change their tune if he stopped fighting the monsters.
The special effects aren't very special. It's cheap-looking CGI. However this lets the film create an insane and frequently dodgy kaiju menagerie, including a crotch-mounted eyeball snake that can shoot out at you and then be reeled back in with what looks a lot like masturbation. Later there's a penis monster. If you like weirdness, watch this film. Furthermore towards the end I found myself wondering, "wouldn't it have been better if...?" only for the movie to pre-empt my musings and do exactly that, but a hundred times bigger and sillier. The last ten minutes are... wow.
Does the film work? Hmmm. It's been well-received, both in Japan and internationally. However it's dry and actually not much fun, being deadpan with no gags except the basic one of "I can't believe I'm watching this." There were moments where I felt terribly sad for Matsumoto, e.g. the bricks through his windows, but others where he simply comes across as pathetic. He has a manager who would seem to be robbing him blind and he sells space on his body for sponsors' logos that he doesn't want and complicate his fights. The film also takes a detailed interest in the practicalities of being a superhero, so for instance we see how he gets into those purple underpants and the come-down of him shrinking again after his job is done. The underpants made me laugh, for instance, but I don't know why. I presume it's just the combination of unsentimental nuts-and-bolts practicality and this mad subject matter.
I'm now interested in Matsumoto's other films, though. Symbol (2009) did poorly with domestic audiences, but better internationally. It has two storylines, one involving a Mexican wrestler and the other (more surreally) a Japanese man trapped in an empty white room. Scabbard Samurai (2010) is less well known, but a few minutes' browsing suggests that those who've seen it love it.
Is this a good film? Well, it's definitely a curiosity. It's the kind of thing you immediately want to show to your closest movie-watching friends, just to see their reactions. It's so po-faced that it doesn't feel like parody, but it's definitely taking aim at (among other things) personal documentaries, reality TV, monster movies, commercial exploitation and the shallowness of modern life that treats everything as entertainment. It has closely observed realism alongside utter raving madness and I get the impression that it achieves exactly what Matsumoto wanted. I don't think I'll ever forget it, anyway.