The Downtown comedy duo — comprising Hitoshi Matsumoto and Masatoshi Hamada — are sitting on a train speeding towards Narita Airport outside Tokyo. It’s not like they’re going anywhere, or doing anything, even — they’re just sitting there and waiting for something to happen. “Something” in this case is a gag carefully engineered in advance by their team of comedian acolytes.
This is vintage Downtown — from a mid-1990s episode of the television program “Downtown no Gottsu Ee Kanji (Downtown’s Feeling Real Good)” — and the pair are in their element, giggling expectantly as they watch suburban Chiba Prefecture whiz by from the train’s elevated vantage point. Big concrete buildings give way to houses, which give way to broad rivers and then fields — and then the gag arrives, albeit in staccato glimpses caught from the speeding train’s window.
First there’s what looks like a wearable plush giraffe suit lying in a field. A few seconds later, there’s another. “Eleking! Eleking’s dead!” Hamada cries out in shock at the apparent demise of what is not a giraffe at all, but a monster from a 1960s live-action sci-fi TV show.
Soon another dead Eleking appears, slumped in a field — then another on top of a warehouse roof. Matsumoto breaks into laughter as he sits, nose pressed against the train window: “Elekings are falling left right and center. Who could be doing this?!”
And then, the punch line: The train whizzes past at just the right moment for an apparently rampaging farmer (in fact comedian Itsuji Itao) to be seen using a pitchfork to inflict a mortal blow on yet another hapless Eleking.
Matsumoto doubles over in his seat with uncontrollable laughter.
I was reminded of this eight-minute sequence — which obviously required not only the cooperation of countless staff, landowners and the Keisei train company — as Matsumoto was telling me about his television work from the mid-1990s.
“We could pretty much do anything we wanted back then,” the now-iconic comedian said, adding that back then they had almost unlimited budgets. “It was a good time for the TV stations and a good time for us,” he said with a smile.
And the good times are continuing for Matsumoto. The 50-year-old is still one of the country’s most ubiquitous TV personalities — appearing in numerous regular and special one-off shows. But, more importantly, he has over the last six years branched out into a new field — one that he says offers far more freedom than is offered by the now belt-tightening TV stations: filmmaking.
In fact it was — ostensibly, at least — for the purpose of discussing his latest directorial outing, titled “R100,” that he agreed to sit down recently for this interview with The Japan Times.
Nonetheless, in light of Matsumoto having had such a long and varied and, indeed, fascinating career, this writer decided from the outset not to dwell long on “R100” — a flick starring Nao Omori that’s essentially about sado-masochistic bondage — which is not really the stuff of a family-oriented newspaper such as ours.
So, after politely inquiring into the Matsumoto mind for any insights to be gleaned from that tale of a sorry salaryman’s encounter with some particularly indiscreet dominatrices, your intrepid reporter delved into the comedian’s past — his childhood in the working-class city of Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, his meeting with his Downtown partner Hamada and his attendance in the early 1980s at NSC, a then brand-new school operated by one then little-known agency, Yoshimoto Kogyo.
Of course Yoshimoto Kogyo is now an entertainment behemoth — a status that they owe in no small part to Matchan and Hamachan, as the Downtown duo are generally known.
In the late ’80s, the pair were among a small stable of talent that the company — and in particular a talented manager named Hiroshi Osaki, who is now its president — brought from Osaka to Tokyo.
In Osaka, Downtown had started out as a manzai act, specializing in two-person routines between a so-called boke (half-wit) — in their case Matsumoto — and a tsukkomi (straight-guy) — Hamada — who would tend to slap his partner over the head to admonish him for his stupidity.
But Downtown never really followed the formula precisely, and Hamada’s tsukkomi was often as half-witted as Matsumoto’s boke. They also branched out at an early stage from stand-up routines to skits, and it was their penchant for odd surrealism — generally accepted to have been courtesy of Matsumoto — that really propelled their rapid rise through the ranks of Tokyo’s TV hierarchy.
In one storied series of skits from a TV show titled “Downtown no Gottsu E Kanji,” Matsumoto plays a mischievous little boy, recently deceased, who sticks his head out from behind his gravestone during his own sad and staid funeral to torment his older brother.
“Call the monk a ‘baldy,’ ” he urges his sibling, before doing it himself, then quickly hiding so his brother has to take the blame.
Such skits soon gave way to bizarre real-world setups like the the Eleking dramas witnessed through the train windows on the way to Narita airport, and a whole range of the kind of talk-show and variety programs for which Japanese TV is well known.
Matsumoto still appears in countless TV shows, but when we met it was his film work that was uppermost in his thoughts — so it was with “R100, that we kicked off our conversation.
A man joins a bondage club but finds the dominatrices come chasing after him in real life: The story for your fourth film is not exactly run of the mill, even by your standards. Where did the idea come from?
Well my third film, “Saya Zamurai (Scabbard Samurai),” was probably the most filmic of all my films, so with this one I kind of wanted to really cut loose. The theme this time as far as I was concerned was, “How strange can I make this?” I think I did pretty well.
On a scale of one to 10, just how strange was it?
About a nine, I guess. If you make it too crazy, then it ends up a mess, so it needs about 10 percent that actually gives it some kind of order.
I see, but with the main subject being bondage, you are testing the limits from the get-go. Without going into too much detail, can you tell me what you think it is that human beings might find attractive about that particular pastime?
Well, what I said to the lead actor, Nao Omori, was that, you know, I believe that men have a cunning streak. So, even if their family is in a state like that of Omori’s character Katayama — with the wife in a coma and a young child at home — the man still has this irrepressible urge to pursue immorality, to go and run wild.
It’s like sitting at home to dinner with the family, but in the back of your mind thinking about what you are going to do when you hit the town later that night.
So that desire is represented by the secret club.
Usually, even if someone were to have such desires, they wouldn’t normally act on them.
That’s right, usually such desires would be suppressed. The film shows what can go wrong when they are acted on. Katayama incurs a kind of divine punishment.
I see. But still, in choosing to act on his desires and embark on his adventure, he is assuming the passive role of a masochist. So, while breaking free, he is also choosing to submit himself to the whims of these mysterious women. Is there a contradiction there? You would be aware, I presume, that one foreigners’ stereotype about Japanese people — men, in particular — is that they are kind of passive. The salaryman does what he is told, doesn’t assert himself, doesn’t make a fuss. That Katayama’s breakout fantasy involves subjugation seems connected to that. What do you think?
I see, yes that hadn’t actually occurred to me, but I think you might be right. There is an element of that in the national character, isn’t there.
Just a thought.
Yes, yes, if you were to assign characteristics by nationality then I think you would say the Japanese tend toward passivity.
And that trait appears to be most pronounced in the men — which accords to the gender division in your film, whose central character is a weak, submissive man being lorded over by an array of powerful women.
Right, yes — but I think it would have been tough to make a comedy from the perspective of a dominatrix!
Indeed. Name some more of those national characteristics of the Japanese, just for the men.
I think in fact men like Katayama probably are quite common. He has this desire inside him and it grows and grows so much that it starts to have an impact on his life and his family. The only difference between him and the average salaryman is that Katayama actually acts on his desires. I think a lot of people deliberately suppress theirs.
How about you? Do you tend to suppress or act on your desires?
Me? Of course, I have desires I suppress. But I guess you could say I am relatively free at expressing my desires.
What kind of desires do you suppress?
Well I’m much better at coming home early nowadays. On average I probably get home about two hours earlier than I used to.
I see. Being the father of a young child is one thing you have in common with the Katayama character in the film. And one of the key moments in the film is when Katayama suffers the embarrassment of having his son catch him “engaged” with a particularly enthusiastic dominatrix. Is there anything about yourself that you’d rather keep secret from your daughter?
Hah! Well, given that my daughter is 4, and that this film ended up with an R rating, I actually hope she doesn’t see it — at least for a while. She’d be like, “Papa, what on earth are you doing?”
Does she have an understanding of what it is you do for a living?
The interesting thing is that just the other day we were walking down the street together and someone came up and said, “Matsumoto-san, can I shake your hand?” Afterward, my daughter turned and said, “Who was that? Your friend?” Explaining that was hard.
And in addition to your being famous, has your daughter actually realized that your occupation is to make people laugh?
I’m not sure what she thinks now, but initially my daughter had this aversion to Hamada! She was like, “I don’t like that man.” When she was asked why, she’d say: “Because he always hits Papa.”
One thing all your films have in common is that they are about particularly weak men who through various odd sets of circumstances have to fulfill some strange destiny. There was an element of that in 2007’s “Dai-Nipponjin (Big Man Japan),” “Saya Zamurai” (“Symbol”) two years later — and now it’s there again in “R100.” What is it you find attractive about such stories, or such characters?
I don’t actually think about it too much, but I guess it is the pathos of man that I find attractive — the sorrow. It’s a sadness, but one with something that you can laugh at, something that makes you giggle. There is a lot of that.
Do you relate to such characters yourself?
I guess I do. You can’t shoot what you don’t know, so I need that element of sympathy for the character.
Were you ever weak yourself — like when you were a child?
Absolutely. I was really weak. I was really weak and, hmm, our family wasn’t that well off. That’s where the laughter came from. I think a lot of myself as I am today stems from that time.
Did you think back then that you wanted to become strong or succeed — did you have that kind of desire?
Well, I was no good at my studies — I couldn’t do sports and I wasn’t popular with the girls. The only thing I had was a reputation for being kind of funny. That was all I had, and I’ve tried to make something of it.
When did you decide you wanted to be a comedian?
In high school. I couldn’t see that I’d be able to do any other job.
When did you meet Hamada?
I was with him right through from elementary school, but it wasn’t till junior high that we started being friends. Without him I don’t think I would have done this.
What do you think you would be doing now if you had never met him?
Gosh, I think I would have been holed up in some out-of-the-way corner of Osaka living a very inconsequential life. Not that that would have been a bad thing!
Shortly after graduating from high school you were among the first batch of students to enter Yoshimoto Kogyo’s newly formed school, NSC. The idea that you could study at a school to be a comedian must have been very novel back then. What made you join?
Up until then, it wasn’t possible to become a comedian without spending several years apprenticing with an established professional — a rakugo (comic storytelling) artist, for example. But right at the time we graduated from high school, NSC opened and, to be honest, we thought it looked easier than spending years with a mentor. That was it basically.
So you entered NSC with Hamada. What kind of work did you do together? Manzai (Comedy duo)? Skits?
Manzai. We did a bit of skit work, but back then it was basically manzai.
What kind of subject matter did you work with?
I guess the most important thing was that we thought that unless we were doing
something original there wouldn’t be much point in doing it at all. That was our theme — to try and do something not being done by anyone else. That was our approach to manzai and it is still my approach to film now.
What was the norm back then? What kind of comedy were you trying to distinguish yourselves from?
It was all really by-the-book. The boke (half-wit) would always say something interesting and the tsukkomi (straight guy) would always come in with, “Don’t do that!” I think we broke that pattern down a little.
NSC was located in Osaka, and for the first few years you worked in that city. Why did you decide to come to Tokyo? Did it take guts to make the switch?
Ah, people often talk about the Tokyo-Osaka relationship as though they are almost equals, but that is just wrong. Tokyo is completely the center of Japan and Osaka is just one regional city. It’s no different from Nagoya or Fukuoka, really. So, for that reason, as someone who grew up in Osaka then, of course I dreamt of making it in Tokyo.
But it did require guts to actually make the switch. If you’re a comedian, then for starters you have the handicap of the Osaka dialect — which when we were young was still not really accepted in Tokyo. (Downtown helped make it popular.) I wouldn’t go so far as to say there was discrimination, but it was close.
You’ve made all sorts of TV programs in the past. Which would you say was the most enjoyable — the best?
I guess that would be “Gottsu Ee Kanji,” around the mid-1990s. That was when we were most free to do the kind of skits we wanted. I think for me, personally, that was the most satisfying program we’ve done.
So the skits were more fun than the manzai?
Was that because there was no format — you were completely free?
I guess that was part of it. But then, back in Osaka when we were doing TV, the stations didn’t have much money to spend on shows — but in Tokyo it was a real golden age in terms of budgets. We could pretty much do anything we wanted. It was a good time for the TV stations and a good time for us.
I imagine in the past you’ve made countless proposals for new TV shows to TV stations — and that many have been rejected. Which was the rejection that caused you the most heartache?
Ha! Gosh, there are so many I can’t say. There are so many, even today.
Really? Are there any that you are still determined to realize?
No, well — I guess I don’t actually see much future in TV, and that’s part of the reason why I’m making films.
It certainly doesn’t seem like you suffer many restrictions in your film-making!
One of my own favorites among all your TV programs is “Ippon Grand Prix,” which forces contestant comedians to come up with impromptu one-line gags on various topics. Do you see that as a sort of test of their innate talent?
Yes, because the jokes must stem from a single idea, so you really get a feel for the competitors’ sense. It is very simple — but I like that. That’s really the foundation of my own work, too. It’s good that we invite the viewers to participate from home, too. I like that show a lot.
Watching programs like that, I get the feeling that you have this ideal of how a comedian should be — like he or she must be able to respond quickly and creatively. It’s almost as though you believe that comedy is an art form and you want your colleagues to be striving to achieve a particularly high level of artistry.
I think there is an important difference between comedy and art — and that is that comedy should not be so proficient, or clever, that it becomes “art.”I think if it really became art, then you wouldn’t actually laugh anymore. Comedy has to be one step back from art — but that’s not to say it shouldn’t have artistic elements.
What kind of artistic elements are you thinking of?
I think if you really perfect comedy too much — if it is really gets to be too good — then your audience just ends up being impressed, like: “Oh, my!” As a creator, of course, that is a good thing, but ultimately you don’t want the impression of your proficiency to overshadow the actual laughs. If you get too much “Oh, my!” then the audience is in fact responding with surprise more than with laughter.
Your new film’s title is “R100” — with the joke being that it is designed for people over the age of 100. Meanwhile, I believe you are celebrating a very important birthday tomorrow. Could you tell us your thoughts on turning 50 and your thoughts on the prospect of one day turning 100.
I wonder what kind of film I would make if I lived to 100. I’m interested in that. And on turning 50: When I entered this industry, to be honest I thought I would have retired by now. But here I am still doing it, and I have no intention of retiring. I wonder how long I can keep it up …
Do you think the timing of your retirement will be something you choose yourself?
I wonder. Even if I wanted to keep working, but I couldn’t get any jobs, then for all intents and purposes I would have retired. But it’s hard to say. I guess my personality is such that if people want me continue, I will.
“R100” was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival and opened in cinemas in Japan on Oct. 5. Screenings at Toho Cinemas Roppongi and Umeda Burg Theater 7 are with English subtitles. See the website at www.r-100.com for further details.