One of the most difficult genres to translate across cultural & language barriers is the comedy. While there’s a visceral, immediate impact from action & horror that make them near-universal, comedy usually relies on a mutual cultural foundation shared between creator and audience, so that those shared norms can be exaggerated or upended. The Japanese business-world satire Giants & Toys sidesteps the exported comedy’s cultural disconnect by centering its humor on a simple, easily translatable thesis that would resonate with any audience no matter their background: “Capitalism is bad.” That isn’t an especially complex or nuanced target for the movie to satirize, but it is one that’s only become increasingly relatable across all borders in the half-century since the film’s initial release.
A trio of cutthroat caramel companies compete to out-exploit each other over increasingly trivial differences in candy sales. As the Big Three candy companies race to out-Willy Wonka each other with the latest developments in caramel technology and marketing gimmickry, their tactics get progressively more vicious & unscrupulous, but the stakes for victory remain largely unimportant. There’s more than enough candy money to go around for all three companies to profit, but personal increases in sales is not enough to satisfy their corporate bloodlust. In a game where “Eat or beat eaten; cheat or be cheated,” are the only rules, success is only measured by the destruction of your enemies, and the stress of striving for that market dominance every waking moment drives the companies’ executives’ bodies into the ground. As they cough blood into their pristine handkerchiefs under the exponential, ulcer-inducing stress of the job, it never stops being amusingly pathetic that they’re sacrificing their health over something as frivolous as determining the best prizes for children to earn by mailing in UPC codes from candy wrappers. Capitalism is the farce, and this movie is smart about capturing it at its most inane & inhumane.
The only detectable shred of humanity in this picture is Hitomi Nozoe’s performance as the up-and-coming spokesmodel Kyôko, who functions as an element of chaos in the otherwise regimented world of corporate candy sales. When she’s first plucked from poverty & obscurity by the marketing executives who intend to make her a star, she’s a wild brat with an adorable distaste for being told what to do. The demands of being a spokesmodel for a corporate product—even a childish indulgence like candy—means that she’s pressured from all sides to be sexualized & politely mannered in the public eye. She refuses for as long as she can, subverting her handlers’ attempts to objectify her by lashing out like a goofball child on a never-ending sugar rush. Her rotten teeth & wagging tongue are especially powerful weapons in this effort to maintain her autonomy, earning most of the movie’s biggest laughs. Unfortunately, she can’t thwart the company who owns her image forever, though, and a corporation smoothing out her rough edges is one of the film’s greatest tragedies. This is a largely downbeat, defeatist tale—especially for a comedy—and much of its gloom & deviousness relies on Kyôko’s arc and the wild energy of Hitomi Nozoe’s performance.
Whether or not Giants & Toys has anything especially novel to say about the corrosive nature of Capitalism, its vulgar sense of humor and sleek stylishness (bolstered by an arbitrary Space Age marketing gimmick pursued by one of the Big Three candy companies) make for a fun, continually surprising watch. The intrusion of a chaotic outsider upending its corporate boardrooms’ routine exploitation schemes makes it feel like a Japanese precursor to Putney Swope (except that it’s more consistently rewarding than Putney Swope from gag to gag). Most comedies don’t translate nearly this well across cultural & language barriers, but most comedies don’t tackle such a universal, enduringly relevant satirical target. Giants & Toys‘s “Capitalism is bad” thesis may be surface-level & broad, but the film sets itself apart from other corporate-world satires by highlighting that culturally universal subject’s ugliest & most absurd extremes in a perversely fun way.