Satoshi Miki is by far one of the most dependable directors I've come across. His films are consistently great, they're all comedies in one way or another, and getting to them is nearly impossible. I'd heard some pretty bad things about What to Do with the Dead Kaiju? [Dai Kaijû no Ato Shimatsu], his latest, but with a track record like Miki's, I was willing to give the film a fair shot. After having seen the film the negativity doesn't surprise me at all, but I suspect that has more to do with the niche appeal and specificity of the comedy than with the actual quality of the film.
Miki's comedies are very Japanese. They thrive on weirdness and they don't hold back, but they are also delivered in a deadpan manner. Miki has explored this type of comedy in various iterations and configurations, which is what has broadly determined his international appeal. When there's a bit more drama present his films travel well, when it tilts toward full-on comedy they are a much harder sell. What to Do with a Dead Kaiju? is a pastiche of the Kaiju genre, with the comedy lingering in the film's premise and the rest of it played rather straight-faced. In that sense, it reminded me a lot of Matsumoto's Big Man Japan.
Familiarity with Japan's Kaiju films is a big plus. Not only because the premise is a clever take on the genre's aftermath that we never really get to see, but because all the political arm-wrestling that somehow became part of the genre is now stretched to the extreme, over what seems to be a very trivial problem. Miki takes the elements of a classic Kaiju flick and revisits them when no Kaiju (not a live one anyway) is threatening humankind, which makes all the usual politics a lot more fun to watch. People expecting a more direct comedy might be disappointed though, apart from some goofy characters, it's all very referential.
The film's title gives you a pretty good idea of what to expect in terms of the storyline. After a mysterious light kills a menacing monster on a rampage through Tokyo, the remains of the beast fall into a nearby river. It is too heavy to move and no Earthly tools can breach its skin, so now it's lying there, rotting. Japan is planning to turn the corpse into a tourist attraction, money that will come in handy when they start rebuilding the city. An unexpected problem arises when gasses inside the monster start building up and threaten to blow up the entire thing.
The budget may not have been at blockbuster level, but Miki makes very good (and smart) use of it. Most of the effects are pretty functional (showcasing the dead Kaiju in its full glory), but the cinematography really is top-notch. The camera is very agile and loves to do dramatic swoops, the use of color and lighting is stylish and the framing is pretty epic. It all looks very heroic, shot with a sense of grandeur, while in reality, the film is very daft and silly. This contrast is essential to the comedy of the film, something Miki understood very well.
The soundtrack is probably one of the least remarkable elements of the film. It's not a big problem for a comedy and it does a very good job mimicking the score of more typical Kaiju productions, but that's pretty much where it ends. Miki isn't really known for using the score to create an extra level of comedy and since he consistently does well it's a bit pointless to comment too much on it, but there definitely lies some unexplored potential that could lift his films to an even higher level. As it stands, the score is decent enough, just nothing you'll remember once the film is over.
The cast is nothing less than impressive, though the biggest roles didn't necessarily go to the biggest stars. The most notable performance for me came from Gaku Hamada, an actor I once abhorred, but who is now redeeming himself with each new role he takes on. He is absolutely perfect here, with his little mustache, small stature, and extreme eagerness to compensate. Joe Odagiri leaves a very solid impression too, but his part is much smaller. Toshiyuki Nishida is also perfect as Japan's prime minister, and the rest of the cast is equally capable really. Miki makes perfect use of his actors, I couldn't have asked for more.
When people think of Kaiju films, they immediately think of big monsters and insane destruction. But the fact of the matter is that many of these films have a strong political foundation, and that's exactly what Miki's film is poking fun at here. It's also the only thing he can ridicule, as the actual monster has already been defeated. To see this film pan out in an almost identical way as its source material is pretty hilarious, requiring some clever, smart writing and solid genre insights. Whether you think it is actually funny will depend on your sense of humor, but the craft and talent are on full display here.
Again, I'm not really surprised people haven't taken too well to this film. It's very different from what you'd expect it to be, even though it is remarkably faithful to its title. Satoshi Miki made a great pastiche of the genre's weakest elements, resulting in a comedy that might be smarter and slyer than it is laugh-out-loud funny. It is another great film from the man's hands though, and something he hadn't really done before. The good thing is that his newest film is already doing the festival rounds, so hopefully, I won't have to wait too long for my next fix. What to Do with the Dead Kaiju? isn't the easiest film to recommend, but if think you'd like an odd and deadpan Kaiju pastiche, do give it a go.