Comics who direct films may start by making audiences laugh, but if they are at all successful they typically turn serious. The classic example is Charlie Chaplin, who went from slapstick two-reelers to speechifying against totalitarianism in “The Great Dictator.”
In Japan, TV comic and MC Takeshi Kitano cut out the transitional period altogether: His first film as director, the appropriately titled “Sono Otoko, Kyobo ni Tsuki (Violent Cop, 1989),” starred Kitano as a sadistic cop who metes out violence the way a department store Santa hands out candy — with indiscriminate glee. His subsequent films were also more notable for their body counts than their laughs.
But Hitoshi Matsumoto, who succeeded Kitano as the number one comic on Japanese television playing the boke (half wit) of the popular comedy duo Downtown, has so far rejected this route to auteur-hood. The three films he has directed to date — “Dainipponjin (Big Man Japan, 2007),” “Shinboru (Symbol, 2009) and “Saya Zamurai (Scabbard Samurai, 2010)” — are all straight-up comedies, if ones filled with social, cultural and even religious commentary, in often goofy guises.
In person at a hotel in Okinawa — while down for the day to do media interviews for his agency, Yoshimoto Kogyo — Matsumoto ponders questions with the deadpan look of an immigration bureaucrat examining a visa application. His answers, though, often come accompanied with the sort of wry quips familiar to millions of fans. But he isn’t trying to impress a foreign interviewer: Comedy is simply his mind’s default setting.
His next film, says Matsumoto, will be a comedy as well, though he can say little about it beyond its general theme (“breaking down stereotypes”) and target audience (“People 100 or older”). It’s working title: “R-80.” “People under 80 won’t be allowed to watch it,” he helpfully explains.
Like his previous films, this one is based on Matsumoto’s own ideas instead of the more usual proven property from another media. Also, he intends to make it minus the monsters (“Big Man Japan”), samurai (“Saya Zamurai”) and surrealistic fantasy (“Symbol”) of his previous work. “I think I should do something different each time,” he says. “I don’t want to be tied down.”
Matsumoto also tries to work free of cinematic models, past and present. “Basically, I don’t have a lot of interest in other people’s movies,” he says. “Foreign or domestic, it doesn’t matter, I just don’t watch them. I want to do something different from everyone else, so I don’t want to see films by other people and be influenced by them.”
Finally, in contrast to the inwardly focused domestic film industry, which regards the rest of the world as an afterthought, Matsumoto decided to focus on the international audience after his first film, “Big Man Japan,” was selected for the Directors’ Fortnight section at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. His films prioritize easily understood sight gags over the rapid, freeform patter of his television manzai (comedy duo) routines.
This strategy has paid off in a higher foreign profile than many of his Japanese filmmaking contemporaries, capped by a special screening of his films by the Cinematheque Francais in Paris last March. This sort of recognition at a world cinema Mecca, he admits, has so far escaped him in Japan. “The fact that I’m a TV talent and a famous celebrity gets in the way to some extent,” he explains. “People may not want to see a film by Matsumoto the comedian and TV talent. I should sell myself more as Matsumoto the film director. But in Japan that’s probably going to take more time.”
As he nears his 30th year as a professional comedian and his 50th birthday, Matsumoto has been thinking of moving in new directions, with his agency’s backing. Hiroshi Osaki, the president of Yoshimoto Kogyo and Downtown’s former manager, recently told the press of plans to mount an exhibition of Matsumoto’s art in France next year, to coincide with the premiere of the new film. “That guy is always saying stuff like that,” Matsumoto joked. “But we are talking about how to do it … I’m at the age when I want to start doing things like that. I want to enjoy myself in fields other than television, so I’m interested.”
He also acknowledges that, given the vagaries of show business, such decisions may be not always be in his hands. “Things may not go according to my vision,” he says. “From next year, they may say, “We don’t need you anymore.” He draws a comparison with his favorite artist, Vincent Van Gogh, who famously sold only one painting in his lifetime. “Maybe it’ll be the same way with me and films,” he says. This time, though, he’s laughing.