Director: Hitoshi Matsumoto
Running time: 100 minutes
There's a definite genius at work in R100, the new surrealistic oddity from Japanese megastar Hitoshi Matsumoto. One half of the comedy duo Downtown, the tandem of stand-up comics who've been headlining popular variety shows in Japan since the 1980s, Matsumoto has been described by some as the country's version of Jerry Seinfeld, but bigger.
The comparison seems lightweight, though, once you've seen any of Matsumoto's films, namely the 2007 mockumentary Big Man Japan—about an average guy who sprouts up to a tall building's height and throws down against Godzilla-like monsters—and now R100, since, well, Seinfeld's sole movie from behind the camera (as a writer and producer) is Bee Movie. That 2007 animated flick for kids isn't in the same league as Matsumoto's latest, which, to simplify it, follows a nebbish, middle-aged furniture salesman whose decision to solicit an enigmatic S&M company called "Bondage" results in dominatrixes randomly interrupting his life, in public places, and humiliating him with physical violence and other ego-bashing.
And that's putting it lightly. R100 starts off just like that, with poor Takafumi (Momori Nao) submitting himself to various forms of degradation—one leather-clad woman shows up at a sushi restaurant, smashes all of his food, and makes him eat the mushed shrimp and rolls; another beats the piss out of him on a sidewalk. At this point, R100 doesn't play like the work of a bizarre funnyman like Matsumoto. The mood is solemn, even poignant; Takafumi visits his comatose wife in the hospital without any punch lines. There's humor elsewhere, but it's meditative, not wacky, with slight hints of insanity whenever Takafumi experiences intense pleasure—his face stretches into a smile straight out of Soundgarden's infamous "Black Hole Sun" music video. Those touches aside, though, the hyperbolic reputation that the film earned when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month—mainly hinged around the sentiment of "It's the craziest movie you'll see all year"—doesn't register during R100's somber first half, but then Matsumoto reveals his master plan with an unexpected and hilariously timed title card, disrupting the natural order of how movies are supposed to transpire like Janet Leigh's midpoint death in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.
Matsumoto's style of comedy requires patience, in how he calmly sets up his jokes through world-building. Once R100's weirdness kicks in, you're settled into its groove, which allows Matsumoto to then go full-on Monty Python. Playing off the film's title (a riff on the Japanese movie rating system, whose equivalent to NC-17 is R18), R100 introduces a group of censors watching R100's madness alongside the audience and amazingly commenting on all of its plot-holes and confusion, similar to the final scene in the Coen brothers' Burn After Reading, only more often and, frankly, much funnier. After one of the dominatrixes dies, her colleagues give random, mournful on-camera interviews directly to the camera, as if R100 has suddenly turned into a faux documentary. You almost expect John Cleese to walk into the frame and announce, "And now for something completely different."
Even the title R100 is a sly ruse on Matsumoto's part. Despite the whole S&M angle, the film is relatively tame, with the only nudity coming from Takafumi giving his son a bath in one of R100's genuinely tender moments. It's a bait-and-switch from Matsumoto—he knows you're expecting extreme kink but never delivers it. Well, except for the film's incredibly batshit center-piece, in which Takafumi is stripped down to his skivvies, gagged, and tied up as "The Queen of Saliva," an overweight dominatrix who loves to dance, repeatedly spits on him. In a way, it's also an instance where Matsumoto's spitting on the viewer's anticipation, replacing any chances of seeing beautiful women do dangerous things with the sight of a chubby one being gross.
The further R100 gets into its cerebral, thinking man's absurdity, the more ambiguous and abstract the meta-narrative becomes. By having his movie-censors-within-the-movie demonstrating that they're just as bewildered as you, the viewer, are, Matsumoto makes it clear that he's both in on the jokes and in total control of them. The 100-year-old director seated inside the ratings board's theatre, his facial expression stern the entire time beforehand, closes the film with his very own "Black Hole Sun" grin. He, representative of Matsumoto, knows he's just blown everyone's minds, and you're right there laughing with him, ready to wrap one of those red ball mouth gags around your head and beg Matsumoto for more.
Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)