The charming Superhero mockumentary Dainipponjin (Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2007) opens with a wistful ode to ode to the compact umbrella, which despite its diminutive size, is able to grow large and shield its owner in an hour of need. Dai-Sato, played by writer-director Matsumoto, has a particular fondness for expanding objects because they remind him of himself; in his role as superhero Dainipponjin (a.k.a. Big Japan Man) he too must grow to several times his size to protect Japan from monstrous “baddies.” Throughout the film mild-mannered Dai-Sato is shadowed by an unseen cameraman/interviewer who attempts to get a sense of Dai-Sato’s life as a 6th generation Dainipponjin. It quickly becomes apparent that the superhero’s life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Dai-Sato lives in a rundown shack whose gate is defaced by graffiti and heckling notes. As the filmmaker follows Dai-Sato inside, his camera lingers on the overgrown lawn and rundown child’s swing set that hint at Dai-Sato’s troubled domestic life. Dai-Sato longs for the days of his grandfather’s reign when baddies were plentiful and Superheroes were idolized by children and respected by adults. When we finally witness Dai-Sato’s transformation into Dainipponjin, it is preceded by a shabby religious ceremony in an outbuilding of a local power plant. The presence in the background of a sheepish looking employee wearing a windbreaker illustrates with comic precision how much the lot of the superhero has declined since golden era. Later, in a very funny sequence we meet Dai-Sato’s senile grandfather who escapes from his nursing home, transforms into diaper clad giant, and wreaks havoc in an attempt to reclaim his youth.
In terms of its tone and subject-matter Dainipponjin is very much of its moment. It shares The Incredibles’ (Brad Bird, 2004) interest in the everyday logistics of super-heroism, while also partaking in a gentler version of the cringe comedy made popular by television shows like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Unlike the often unlikable protagonists portrayed by Ricky Gervais and Larry David, Matsumoto is a thoroughly cuddly sort who is devoted to his housecat and proudly takes his young daughter to visit the bunny rabbits at the petting zoo. Stylistically, Dainipponjin is intensely heterogeneous. The handheld interview segments which consist mostly of static long-takes and following shots derive much of their droll humor from the juxtaposition of foreground and background action. The sequences where Dai-Sato transforms into Dainjipponjin parody the rapid montage style and pulsing techno music of contemporary action films, while the monster fights are rendered in the idiom of video games (before each battle a dossier flashes onscreen to highlight each Baddie’s powers and weaknesses). A giddy coda section featuring the American “Super Justice” Family makes whimsical use of antiquated models, reveling in the current nostalgia for pre-CGI effects evinced by Michel Gondry’s similarly funny and poignant Be Kind Rewind (2008).
Dainipponjin screens at the Japan Society in Midtown Manhattan, Friday, July 4 at 2:30 PM.