The world premiere of Hitoshi Matsumoto’s “R100″ in the Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness section must be frustrating for all those Japanese auteurs out there who got rejection letters from North America’s most important festival.
True, the section is devoted to quirk and kink, which fits Matsumoto’s fourth feature, about a man trapped in an ever-escalating S&M game, to a T. But if it did not feature the name of Matsumoto, who has reigned for decades as a top TV comic, this mess of a film would probably not get the prestige boost of the Toronto label, as well as its distribution in Japan by Hollywood major Warner.
It’s hardly Matsumoto’s fault, since that’s just the way the system works. Strange, crazed films from Japan’s “brand name” directors are in demand by overseas festivals — and that is what he happily supplies. But whereas 2007′s “Dai-Nipponjin (Big Man Japan),” 2009′s “Symbol” and 2011′s “Saya Zamurai (Scabbard Samurai)” were full-throttle comedies, if ones utterly weird by local genre standards, “R100″ plays like a confused erotic nightmare, with fun moments scattered and few.
Matsumoto, however, should not be accused of false advertising, since he said from the start that this project, announced in March 2012 at a Cinematheque Francaise retrospective of his films, would be “stupid in the extreme” and no laugh riot.
Shot in gloomy desaturated colors, “R100″ focuses on one Takafumi Katayama (Nao Omori), a sad-sack furniture salesman who is caring for his cute young son while his wife (You) vegetates in an irreversible coma.
Out of motives not entirely explained (though psychological depression and sexual obsession are in the mix), he signs a year’s contract for an unusual S&M service with the twitchy president (Matsuo Suzuki) of a dodgy company appropriately called Bondage.
Soon black-leather-clad dominatrixes, each with a special “skill,” start invading his life at all times and, to his increasing distress, all places, including his store and home. This, he realizes to his chagrin, is strictly according to the contract he signed. But as his face puffs into a (deliberately crude CGI) mask of ecstasy after each abuse and humiliation, we see he is also getting off. That is, he hates it and loves it and, most of all, can’t escape it.
The promise of sexy, surreal black comedy is certainly there (prior to the screening I was mentally referencing the erotic “torture” scenes in Federico Fellini’s “8½”), but Matsumoto subverts it with not only the murky photography, but the abrupt brutality of the S&M. Watching the first of the leather “queens” (supermodel-turned-actress Ai Tominaga) savagely drop-kick Katayama down a flight of stone steps, I felt that the director’s real inspirations were less S&M porn than hardboiled gangster films. (I also realize that S&M aficionados may feel differently.)
But in the ensuing action, which encompasses spitting, whipping and sushi pounding (use your imagination), other influences are also at work. As those who follow Matsumoto’s TV antics know, he is a devotee of the batsu game (punishment game) school of humor — and “R100″ is an extreme example of it. It is as though, free to do as liked in his own film, he dreamed up “punishments” far in excess of what even Japan’s lenient TV censors would allow. In excess, in fact, of anything resembling comedy, black or otherwise.
This freedom, however, has its plus side, with Matsumoto (self-destructively?) inserting a grimly funny subplot about censors discussing a film — the one we are watching — and finding it incomprehensible. We are invited to side with the filmmaker (whose identity I will not divulge), but it’s also obvious the censors have a point. The title “R100″ refers to the rating they assign the film, presumably thinking it suitable for no one likely to see it in a theater.
As the perpetually harassed Katayama, Omori embodies anxiety and angst with every facial droop and crease, but whatever gravitas he brings to the role is undercut by the creepy running gag of Katayama’s bloating orgasmic puss.
Also well cast are Tominaga, Mao Daichi, Shinobu Terajima, Hairi Katagiri, Eriko Sato and Naomi Watanabe as Bondage’s leather-clad employees, though they rarely become more than bizarrely scary cartoons.
So if “R100″ is a misfire, it also has its mysteries and, since it is by the insanely talented Matsumoto, it’s bent appeal. I just hope that, having made this in-joke of a movie, he dreams up one for the rest of us, including this fan from the start, the next time around.
Fun fact: Asked about his film’s divided critical reception at Toronto, including a drubbing in the local paper, Matsumoto noted the wild response from fans at its screening. “It pleased a lot of people, anyway,” he said.