Director 101: The Sexy, Silly, and Surreal World of Hitoshi Matsumoto

Hitoshi Matsumoto is a Japanese comedian turned director. He is well known for being one half of the owarai (a general term for comedy in Japan) duo Downtown. The style of comedy he uses is known as Manzai, which here in the west, is known as the "straight man/funny man" routine. Matsumoto is the boke, or funny man who specializes in being off-the-wall and wacky. This background is important to his directorial career because it illuminates why his films always have that surreal and farcical style to them.

Big Man Japan (2007)

Matsumoto's first film was a satirical take on the kaiju (giant monster) genre filmed in a mockumetary style. It follows the trials and tribulations of Masaru Daisato (Hitoshi Matsumoto) who is an ordinary Japanese citizen with an extraordinary power: when exposed to high voltage electricity he can grow to a gargantuan height. In this form he is known as Big Man and he fights other giants monsters to protect his country. This film focuses on both his rather depressing and unfulfilling personal life (via interviews) and his equally stressful job working for the Ministry of Monster Prevention.

The fights themselves are fun and wacky with some of the most bizarre monster designs I have ever seen. They are rendered in low-fi CGI and though it looks extremely fake, I think that was done on purpose to emulate the campy feel of other kaiju films. Big Man Japan can feel uneven at times, because the segments where they are following Daisato around on his mundane errands can go on a bit too long. They are important to the theme of the film, because they illustrate the dichotomy between his real life and the life he wishes he had. Interestingly enough, the citizens of Japan highly dislike Big Man because he causes a lot of collateral damage when he fights and this is a much more realistic depiction of what would really happen if we had giant monsters battling in our streets.

The ending of this films takes a hard right into some extremely surreal imagery that illustrates the purpose of propaganda--what the government wants you to perceive is happening versus what is actually happening. It's also an homage to shows like Ultraman and Super Sentai and fans of those shows will love all the little references. Big Man Japan is a great entry into Matsumoto's filmography as it introduces a lot of the themes that run through his films.

Symbol (2009)

Symbols are incredibly important in film, especially since it's a visual medium. There is only so much space in a scene to convey meaning and tone and so if a director can use symbolism to illustrate an idea or feeling he opens up his ability to move the viewer. In Symbol, Matsumoto combines two parallel seemingly unrelated story-lines--a Mexican luchador on his way to an important match and a Japanese man trapped in a magical room with no escape. Though these two things are happening independently, they are connecting more than we realize.

In the story line concerning the unnamed Japanese man, played by Matsumoto himself, we see that he has woken up alone in a stark white room with no exits. All along the walls and the ceiling are these...button-like things. Upon pressing one, he discovers two things: one, the buttons are actually tiny penises connected to miniature angels and two, whenever he presses one it causes a random object to appear in the room. Keeping with the theme of "symbols" a penis is something that has the capacity to create life, and touching one enough causes it to ejaculate or "provide" one with an object (the object being semen but theoretically in the right circumstances, later on a baby). On a surface level though, it's just hilarious to watch this guy frantically pressing various penises to figure out a way to get out of the room.

In the second story-line we follow a luchador (David Quintero) that is down on his luck and on the verge of giving up on his passion. His wife is disappointed with him and he has nothing left other than wrestling. In comparison to the "white room" story-line, this seems quite bland and dull in comparison, but I think that's intentional. The way the two narratives converge at the end illustrates the idea of chaos theory and fate in an interesting and completely Japanese way.

Watching the Japanese man try to use the objects he gets to get out of the room is intensely amusing because he eventually tries out all of these goofy Rube Goldberg set-ups to achieve his goal. It's like a combination of the sci-fi flick Cube and Japanese game shows and Matsumoto plays the man with this earnest wackiness that makes you root for him and want him to succeed. It's a one-man-show yet it never gets boring. Eventually the film takes an philosophical and existential turn that is surprisingly touching. While this isn't a traditional film, its creativity is well worth experiencing.

Scabbard Samurai (2010) 

Matsumoto seems to have a love for Japanese genre films, which was evidenced by his take on kauju films in his first feature film Big Man Japan. In Scabbard Samurai, his target is chambara, better known in the west as samurai cinema. So, in this film we are introduced to sad sack nameless samurai (Takaaki Nomi) who has given up his sword and deserted his clan--he wanders the land with his feisty young daughter (Sea Kumada). For the crime of desertion he is sentenced to death via seppuku (by a local lord) but he is given a glimmer of hope. He has thirty days to make the depressed son of the lord crack a smile. If he can do so he will be released from his death sentence.

The samurai is given one chance per day to try to make the young boy laugh and his daily attempts make up the bulk of the film. His demeanor is low-key and defeated and no matter what he attempts it comes off as lackluster. His daughter is full of passion and she is disappointed by her father's lack of will and ambition to save his own life. There are two guards that are in charge of making sure the samurai doesn't escape and even they take pity on him and try to help him come up with ideas to make the child laugh.

Each day is presented as a small skit in which we watch all the absurd things that the samurai does in order to elicit even the smallest hint of a smile on the young child's face. We watch all thirty days go by individually which in a lesser movie could have become monotonous, but in this film the stakes keep getting pushed higher and higher. The third act goes to some sad territory but never becomes maudlin or melodramatic. Matsumoto loves to mix humor and sadness and this contrast often makes each one all the more potent. Overall, as a film this particular one doesn't feel as complete as the others, but the ideas put forth in it are good enough to warrant a watch, especially if one is a lover of samurai films in general.

R100 (2013)

Never one to shy away from sexual content, Matsumoto makes it the focus of his ode to transgression R100. The title refers to Japan's film rating system--in this case saying the film isn't meant to be seen by anyone under age one-hundred, which is his cheeky way of saying this film isn't meant for general consumption.

We are introduced to Takafumi Katayam (Nao Omori) a middle-aged Japanese salaryman with a young son and a wife who is in a coma. Bored with his life he joins a BDSM club that offers an intriguing deal: for one year he can have various dominatrix surprise him with sexy punishments and humiliate him in public. Each dominatrix has a specific skill she specializes in such as saliva play, mimicking voices or whipping. At first Katayam derives extreme pleasure from this arrangement, but eventually they keep ramping up the punishments and start involving his work and family members. Escape from mediocrity and the mundane is a popular theme that is explored in Japanese media due to the workaholic nature of their society. Katayam is in an interesting position where the more outlandish and humiliating the punishment the more he gets orgasmic pleasure yet he cares for those around them and doesn't want them involved. 

Yet another meta layer of the film is a side plot involving cinema goers who are watching a screening of R100 and every once in awhile they go out in the lobby to discuss what is going on in the film with obvious disgust. It's hilarious because they are most likely saying what a lot of the people at home are thinking while watching the film: "What the hell is the director thinking?!" They even dissect plot points and point out things that don't make any logical sense. Matsumoto is trying to say that the movie audience gets the same perverse thrill out of watching explicit films that Katayam gets from being whipped in public. We want escape from our normal lives. It's a great take on the whole "are shocking films art?" argument that has been going on since the beginning of cinema. 

All of Matsumoto's films are unique and creative. While they don't always work and are sometimes nonsensical, his genius manages to shine through at the right moments.

--Michelle Kisner