I pity the critics and reviewers tasked with writing about Matsumoto Hitoshi’s films. I really do. “Offbeat” and “odd” are words most often associated with Matsumoto’s films, but “impenetrable” and “indecipherable” should also be included in the lexicon dedicated to describing those films.
Till today, I am haunted by that final sequence in Big Man Japan (Dai Nipponjin, 2007). It’s a faithful recreation of the classic Japanese “superhero vs monster” miniature set that all Ultraman fans would be familiar with. But this one has a rather nasty twist. It’s hilarious, it’s cheesy, but there’s also an underlying disconcerting vibe about the cartoonish violence. It seems to say something about … something.
But damn if I know what it is.
And judging from what has been written about Symbol (Shinboru, 2009), the film that transmorgrifies the concept of the “man who wakes up in a strange place” into strange comic turns, that film is equally confounding, though I have yet to see it. Scabbard Samurai (Saya Zamurai, 2010) may be the more conventional odd-one-out in Matsumoto’s oeuvre.
I’ve been a fan of the Downtown comedy duo of Matsumoto and Hamada Masatoshi, especially through their ridiculously entertaining show, Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!! and its No Laughing batsu game. In the show, the cast play games and quizzes where failure is met with severe punishment, like being hit in the crotch, for instance.
Why do I bring this up? Because Matsumoto’s 2013 film, R100, has violence and torture at its centre. The film, about a timid salesman looking for kicks via contractual membership at an underground BDSM club, is equally perplexing as his previous output. R100 can be slightly defined in two parts, not just for its shifting cinematography that gains more colour in the second half.
The first half is a rather straightforward dramedy, with Katayama, the salesman, encountering all manner of S&M vixens in all manner of places, from restaurants to hospitals and even his workplace. We learn that he has entered into a one-year contract with Bondage, a secretive club, a deal that will provide him the pleasure of pain anywhere and everywhere, sometimes unexpectedly.
We also learn that he is caring for his young son by himself because his wife is in a coma and on life support. This immediately lends an obvious philosophical inquiry to the story – what does being alive mean?
Katayama, in his daily routines, is almost as comatose as his wife, and only comes alive when beaten up by a dominatrix. This coming-to-life is denoted by a strange sound and Katayama’s face distorted into a weird, smiling contentment.
And how alive is a person extended a lifeline by a mere machine?
But as you begin to ponder and marvel at the film’s thought construct, Matsumoto abruptly calls everything to a halt, and have you realise that you’ve actually been seeing a film within a film. And if you’ve been drawing parallels between the BDSM scenes and the submissive nature of Japanese culture, drop the idea. Everything you thought the film was … well, it simply wasn’t. It’s quite something else, and to give away too much about the second half would be to spoil much of the fun. Suffice it to say that it concerns a filmmaker making a “difficult” film and the discomfiture it evokes.
It is with this astounding self-reflexiveness that the film acquires an artistic, and also comedic, elevation. If by this point you’re starting to wonder if R100 is really a disguised autobiography, well who knows? If Matsumoto’s films have always been “difficult,” then the whole gag about a 100-year-old filmmaker making a film only centenarians would understand certainly points us that way. That would be the easy way out.
But I would like to believe that Matsumoto has something to say about the audience as well, and like in Big Man Japan and Symbol, about the authenticity of film and media. Why do some of us return, time and again, to films that completely discombobulate us? Why do we seek more of such “torture”?
It’s interesting to return to the moment when Katayama enters the Bondage club and is taken by the pill-popping male host into a “carnival” of sorts. The host tells him, “Suffering evokes pain … and when pain reaches a certain limit, we feel joy.”
And then he asks Katayama (and perhaps us), “Can you enter the realm of the senses and experience unparalleled euphoria?” It’s as if Matsumoto is throwing us a challenge, and if he is, then the whole film is one big, sarcastic joke. By the end of the film, we are told that “the masochist becomes the sadist” – as much as we subject ourselves to the afflictive exercise of enduring the film’s “realm of the senses,” the filmmaker, too, had endured much to get the film onto a screen. And now that we’re watching the film, “the masochist has become the sadist,” underlined by the final shot of the film (no spoilers) that displays the sadist’s “euphoria.”
But what do I know? The “filmmaker as sadist” angle is just one of many ways you could look at R100. And if by the end of the film, you’re not still mystified and puzzled, then the sadist has failed.