Monday, February 22, 2010

Japanese Movie Round-up

I love the library. I love the library because you can get a hold of just about anything, if you know where and how to look. Lately, I love the local public library for their DVD collection (it doesn't hurt that I'm going to the main branch of a pretty large city). These are some of the Japan-related movies I've had the enjoyment of viewing in the last week or two.
  • Big Man Japan (大日本人
Released in Japan in 2007, Big Man Japan is the directorial debut of the comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto, who seems to be most famous as part of the television comedy duo Downtown. The film also stars Matsumoto as the eponymous hero.

The film is a mockumentary following Masaru Daisato, a man who inherited his job of protecting Japan from giant monsters from his father, grandfather and so on. When zapped with electricity, he can transform into the giant 大日本人 (Dainipponjin) to fight said monsters off. However, the pay sucks; his wife left him with their daughter, who he only gets to see a few times a year; his television show tanks in the ratings at 2am; and overall, he just isn't very good at his job. He's overshadowed by his grandfather, once hugely famous in the '60s, but is now senile in a nursing home. 

For those who love the inherent sillyness of the giant monster genre, there's a lot to enjoy about Big Man Japan. Personally, I'm a big sucker for any sort of comedy that derives it's humor by taking something crazy and fantastic, and then presents it as if it was just part of someone's mundane, everyday existence. So the fact that Daisato is forced to do his job as part of the family legacy, and therefore hates it and doesn't try very hard at it, brings out a lot of laughs. There's also a lot of great in-jokes for those familiar with the tropes of the genre, and the movie is great at putting real-world logic on a pretty illogical premise. It's a pretty dark comedy, though it drags a bit in the middle, mostly because there aren't as many monster fight scenes (complete with pretty hilariously bad CGI) as one would have hoped. However, the whole movie needs to be watched, if only for the out of nowhere climax and then credits sequence that just has to be seen to believed. Trust me, it's worth it for that alone.

(Incidentally, I waited months to see this movie. I reserved it at the local library last summer as soon as it was released and available. I was number 3 in the queue, and didn't get a hold of it until about three weeks ago. I think someone lost it somewhere down the line.)

  • Prince of Space (遊星王子)

This may be sort of cheating, because I was actually watching the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version. But, here we go.

Prince of Space is the Americanized splicing of two separate movies, 遊星王子 (Wikipedia says its translated "Planet Prince") and 星王子 - 恐怖の宇宙船 (Planet Prince - The Terrifying Spaceship), which were both released in 1959 within a week of each other. Originally it was a TV show that got popular and made into a movie (a reboot, essentially). Basically, a Japanese scientist develops an amazing new rocket fuel that would allow for long-term space travel, and then somehow evil aliens with beaks made of silly putty learn about it and show up to steal the formula (because they need it so they can travel in space? How did they get to Earth in the first place??) Luckily, Prince of Space shows up to protect the scientist and his colleagues, as well as two nosy, annoying kids who get in everyone's way.

This movie was pretty terrible. Horribly dubbed, badly acted, really cheesy effects (Ok, those made it kind of awesome). Luckily, the MST3K team makes it all better, pointing out all the glaring plot holes, cheap-ass dubbing and bizarre translation/localizations. It's on the Vol. 7 DVD.

  • Big Dreams, Little Tokyo

Again, maybe this is cheating a little; this is an American indie film, but the film was actually mostly in Japanese. So deal with it, haters.

Made in 2006 but not relased on DVD 'til 2008, Big Dreams, Little Tokyo was written, directed, and starred David Boyle. It's about an American "businessman" who lives in the "Japantown" district of an unknown city, where he goes around trying to sell his learn English book to the various Japanese citizens. He lives with a half-Japanese half-American who's training to become a Sumo, even though he can't gain enough weight to be accepted to the sumo academy. The film basically follows the two trying to fit into Japanese society with their half-baked business ventures.

The film is charming, in it's low-budget indie-way, and explores with some success some various ideas about cultural identity (even ones beyond Japanese vs American). It's got some really funny moments dealing with culture shock, and the characters are quirky without being unbelievable (even the main character, whose crazy-strict devotion to Japanese culture/language/identity reminds me of someone who might be afflicted with a touch of Aspergers). Jayson Watanabe, the half Japanese friend, steals almost every scene he's in. And hey look, it's got James Kyson Lee (Ando from Heroes) as a mean bookstore owner!

I might have liked this film more than a regular film-goer would because I do see something of myself in the main character, who loves a culture he'll always be an outsider too. So it resonated with me, and I imagine it would to any other Westerner with a passion for Japanese culture, so if you fall under those circumstances, I would certainly recommend it.

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