Big Man Japan (2007) by Hiroshi Matsumoto

Comedian Hiroshi Matsumoto writes, directs and stars in this slapstick take on the kaiju genre. Daisato (Matsumura) lives a simple life, alone in a small house, taking care of a stray cat he found. But when Japan calls for a hero, he is forced to transform into his alter ego “Big Man Japan” (Dainihonjin). Travelling to an electrical power station, he is zapped with energy, growing to an incredible height in order to take on various humongous monsters that Japan is inexplicably harassed by. Unfortunately, for Daisato, his efforts are far from celebrated: when they are acknowledged at all people largely complain about the state he leaves the city in, or his poor performance in fighting these monsters.

“Big Man Japan” is a film that takes the kaiju monster genre and turns it into a farce. The low-brow comedy is best exemplified with the monsters, the design of which is suggestive of sexual anatomy, and with jokes about stinky excretions, and Big Man himself running around in a pair of purple pants, it would be hard to mistake this for an intellectual film. However, the film does also provide some clever moments of satire, such as the idea of Big Man having a manager (played by Ua) who struggles to help him with corporate sponsorship. Most of the best moments are actually not the monster fights, where the shaky CG, used for Matsumoto and a string of Japanese comedians as the monsters, often distracts from the action; but the mockumentary style interviews with Daisato as he goes about his everyday life. These segments, with the off-screen journalist asking questions about his routine, his life, and his estranged family, are humorously juxtaposed with the idea of a powerful, lauded superhero, which is what you might expect. It is almost a film of two completely contrasting styles, with the subtle humour of the interviews interspersed with the outrageous slapstick of the monster battles.

Hiroshi Matsumura’s talents as a writer and performer shine through here. The poor CGI does undermine some of the actions and several broader jokes fail to land, but Matsumura’s natural charm and comedic ability carry the film through. By far the most entertaining sections are when the film has something to say, either about corporatisation, the struggles of fame and living up to the expectations set by previous generations, and even a sideswipe at religious pretentions with a mock ceremony to call forth Big Man’s powers. The subplot involving Daisato’s grandfather, the fourth Big Man, offers a glimmer of emotional resonance to the story, but for the most part it is simply a tongue-in-cheek homage to giant monster movies.

Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996)

In the year 2015, a group of teenagers are called upon to save the world from a predicted apocalypse known as Third Impact. “Evangelion” throws us straight into the action with a decimated Tokyo under attack from a huge flying alien called an Angel. Shinji Ikari (Megumi Ogata) is picked up by Misato Katsuragi (Kotono Mitsuishi) and whisked away to NERV headquarters, where he meets his estranged father Gendo (Fumihiko Tachiki). Shinji his told that he must pilot a giant humanoid robot and fight the Angel to protect humanity. Along with two other pilots, the mysterious Rei Ayanami (Megumi Hayashibara) and the fiery Asuka Langley Soryu (Yuko Miyamura), Shinji is tasked with bringing down the Angels who continue to attack the NERV. The reason for these persistent attacks becomes apparent later as NERV and the shadowy Seele organisation begin discussing plans for the Human Instrumentality Project.

Writer and director Hideaki Anno will forever be remembered for this series, which changed the expectations for what anime could be. “Neon Genesis Evangelion” brings together incredible action with a story that is driven by its characters. While the impressive battles between Angels and Evas provide excitement and ramp up the tension, the real draw is the interpersonal relationships; Shinji must navigate a complex emotional environment, dealing with his father’s rejection, and the burden placed on him by Misato and others at NERV. As the show progresses the line between the external struggle against the Angels and Shinji’s internal angst becomes increasingly blurred. Shinji’s greatest enemy is his own sense of impotence and crushing anxiety, about being unable to live up to expectations and connect with others. The show alludes to Christian theology, but in a way that doesn’t require much foreknowledge of it. The supercomputers are named for the Magi, Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior; there are the Angels, mentions of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Spear of Longinus, Adam as a progenitor of human life, and numerous shots of crucifixes. However, at heart the show is deeply rooted in mankind’s war to overcome the darker aspects of its own nature; to understand why we feel pain and help us accept our own mortality and inadequacy.

Every major character in “Evangelion” is given an interesting back story, full of mystery and tragedy, often interconnected to the others. A parental death, unrequited love, and themes of hurt stemming from human interaction are prominent themes. Most of the characters are suffering because of the actions of others, or their inability to deal with their own situation or accept it. Gendo Ikari is a prime example of the sort of grey character the show excels at. A terrible father, we later come to learn of his own tragedy, and his absolute belief in what he is doing to protect humanity and force its evolution to what he believes is a more perfect state. While he may not be likeable, by the end of the series we at least understand better why he behaves as he does. Misato Katsuragi is another fantastic example, perfectly encapsulating the idea that people wear masks depending on their situation; her heavy drinking, raucous, childlike persona at home is entirely absent when in the role of commander at NERV. Characters like Akagi (Yuriko Yamaguchi), whose backstory is only revealed late in the series, also offer an incredible depth to the drama, in creating a believable world full of well realised characters. “Evangelion” is heavily influenced by anime and films that have gone before, both kaiju and war films in particular, and features the knockabout comedy of sitcom style shows alongside the serious ‘command centre’ moments. In drawing on these elements the show appears on the surface to be only an incredibly well done animation, with all the elements (quirky characters, robot-alien battles, high-school heroes) that typify this genre. But the story it is trying to tell, one of universal and timeless significance is what sets it apart, taking in psychology, philosophy and theology in a bold narrative that tackles major questions about humanity’s future.

The ending of Evangelion received much criticism when it was first broadcast. The final two episodes seem to be a departure from what has gone before. They take place inside Shinji’s head as the Human Instrumentality Project is underway, and deal with a concept that is incredibly difficult to portray. However, if you have followed the essential themes of the show, these final two episodes are a powerful denouement as we see Shinji deal with the central dilemma he has been facing since the first episode. In short, the Human Instrumentality Project intends to merge all human conscience into a single entity. This is a concept that is hard to conceptualize and even harder to depict. While stories about the show running out of budget may be to blame for what we get in these final two episodes, they should not be shrugged off as a failure or in any way a poor end to the show. In fact, they offer something that very few anime ever attempt. If the show is about discovering what is in other people’s hearts, then this finale delivers exactly that for our protagonist. All boundaries are brought down, there is no shame, no fear, no anxiety, no prospect of suffering or war. It is a utopian vision… in a way. Shinji comes to realise that the only person he has control over is himself; and that he has the power to change his entire world by deciding how he engages with it.

Godzilla (1954) by Ishiro Honda

Following a nuclear test at sea several vessels sink beneath the waves, consumed in flames. On the nearby Odo island, people begin to talk about a legendary creature, Godzilla, who has been woken by the testing of these weapons and will return to wreak havoc. Paleontologist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) sets out to investigate the island and they soon come face-to-face with the gargantuan Jurassic-era lizard that they name Godzilla. After its first destructive incursion onto land, the government establish an Anti-Godzilla task force to develop some means of killing the creature. Meanwhile, the fiancé of Yamane’s daughter, the brilliant scientist Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) may have created a weapon capable of bringing down the monster. However, worries about the implications of this devastating device cause him to hesitate.

“Godzilla” is a thrilling action film and political drama, centred on the mysterious titular monster. There is a love triangle subplot involving Yamane’s daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi), Serizawa, and Ogata (Akira Takarada) whose salvage ships were destroyed in the first contact; but for the most part the film is focussed on the monster and the devastation it causes. The script builds anticipation of Godzilla’s first appearance, showing the panic caused by the sinking of the two ships, and the disbelief of officials when they discover the true cause. After the first sighting of Godzilla the film is a fast-paced action film, with one-sided firefights between the military and Godzilla, people fleeing in terror as the city falls around them, and a growing sense of dread at the realisation that this creature might never be stopped. The film uses miniatures and trick-photography to give a sense of the scale of Godzilla as we see him rampaging through the streets, or peering over the top of mountains. Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka put on the monster suit to play Godzilla and do a great job of making the creature into a real character as opposed to simply a foil for the human protagonists. While his motivations are unclear, you get a sense of sentience and purpose to his actions. The film also features a large cast of extras, with the crowds of government officials, and the inhabitants of Odo and Tokyo, emphasising the scale of the monster and the believability of the situation. “Godzilla” draws on earlier monster movie imagery, such as the packed laboratory of Dr. Serizawa where he is busy creating some terrifying new weapon; and also on war films, with the enemy being replaced by a giant monster. The score by Akira Ifukube is similarly infused with elements of horror, with heavy pounding drums, and gung-ho action themes.

Ishiro Honda’s “Godzilla” is a metaphor for the death and devastation caused by nuclear weapons. At several points throughout the film, the atomic bomb and Nagasaki are mentioned explicitly. The story has a strong anti-war, anti-nuclear message, with the scientists being uncertain about creating an incredibly powerful weapon even in the face of this great peril. We see how people, the government and scientists react when faced with a threat and a difficult choice. One of the most touching scenes is of the high-school students singing for peace, particularly poignant considering this film was released almost a decade following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is also a definite critique of modernisation and the loss of traditional respect for nature. The scene in which Odo island is battered by a fierce storm suggests a reading of Godzilla as the revolt of nature against man’s destructive tendencies. Whether a metaphor for ecological destruction or nuclear terror, Godzilla gives a dire warning to humans that we are far from the most powerful force on earth and might easily trigger an extinction level even. Worth watching for the incredible action and poignant storytelling, “Godzilla” uses the monster movie genre to deliver a powerful message for future generations.

Shin Godzilla (2016)

Following a thrilling action packed opening sequence of an unknown creature emerging from Tokyo Bay and rampaging through the city streets, destroying buildings and forcing people to flee before it, various government departments must work to find out what it is and how to stop it. Their response will determine the fates of millions of citizens. Soon a task force of scientists and experts is set up to discover the nature of the being, led by government official Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) and his American counterpart, Kayoko Patterson (Satomi Ishihara). Together this team establishes that the creature seems to be radioactive and capable of rapidly evolving. The seemingly indestructible force, that they name Godzilla, continues on its destructive course, putting them in a race against time and raising difficult questions about how they deal with it.

Written and directed by Hideaki Anno (Evangelion, Love and Pop) with additional directing duties for Shinji Higuchi (Attack on Titan), the film wastes no time by getting straight to what people want to see: a giant creature knocking down buildings and terrorizing the population. This opening sequence is a great way to start as it gives the audience no time to settle and draws you right into the crisis rooms where they are scrambling to counter this unexpected catastrophe. Anno’s face paced directorial style works well to create a sense of panic and the script is perfect in evoking high level discussions on military response, scientific analysis, and the political considerations of the prime minister and his team. Throughout the pacing is good, giving us a couple of lulls in the action to establish characters and spell out more clearly what is happening and the import of the decisions they are taking. There are moments of humour throughout though the film never becomes a parody. It has a satirical edge that doesn’t undermine the drama, perfectly balancing a great action film with a more intelligent discussion on various real-world events. A great cast help to bring to life the script and it doesn’t shy away from complex explanations that help establish a sense of realism to the incredible concept. The use of large casts, in conference rooms and in action sequences works well to give the impression that this is something of incredible significance. Rather than a few isolated characters, there are always larger groups of people listening in or reacting to events. The scenes of Godzilla are exciting, increasing in scale and ferocity as the film progresses. Using a mixture of miniatures, practical and digital effects, the filmmakers create some incredible set-pieces, but always with one eye on the human element by cutting back to reaction shots or the smaller scale impact.

The film continues the tradition of the original Godzilla by creating an interesting subtext to the action. The monster is discovered to be radioactive, a theme that ties in with Japan’s recent Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. The way that government responds to this threat is especially poignant given the real world correlation. Shin Godzilla also appears to be a pointed attack on government incompetence and conservative mindset (evidenced by their consistent sidelining of a female expert who turns out to be correct in everything she suggests). It praises scientists, experts, and using intellect over raw firepower to overcome Godzilla. As with the original there is a discussion of the use of nuclear weapons, and an even more heavily emphasized consideration of Japan-America relations. It celebrates international co-operations, intelligence, warns of the threat of nuclear power while also acknowledging its benefits, and provides a satire of government inadequacies. However, all of these things tie into the story and are never forced. A fun, intelligent monster movie that succeeds on every level. Spectacular action sequences tempered by thoughtful exploration of the underlying themes.