of manzai comedy duo Downtown, Hitoshi Matsumoto has sat atop the slippery pole of popularity on Japanese television for nearly two decades. He has also directed two films, 2007’s “Dai-Nipponjin (Big Man Japan)” and 2009’s “Shinboru (Symbol),” that have screened widely abroad, while occasioning some head-scratching at home.

All his films are about the struggles of a hapless hero (usually played by Matsumoto himself) caught in a crazy, nightmarish situation — a classic comedy setup. In “Big Man Japan,” he is a wrestler who transforms into a Godzilla-size giant to fight monster alien opponents, but is despised despite his heroics. In “Symbol,” he is a man trapped in a huge white room whose mystery proves maddeningly difficult to solve.

Instead of appealing to the mass audience with broad, obvious gags, as might be expected of a TV comedy superstar, Matsumoto has fully indulged the stranger, more creative side of his comic mind, giving rise to the criticism that he is making the films for his own amusement. (And mine — I find them laugh-until-you-gag funny.)

Saya Zamurai (Scabbard Samurai)
Director Hitoshi Matsumoto
Run Time 103 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Now Showing

His latest, “Saya Zamurai” (“Scabbard Samurai”), which will have its international premiere at the Locarno film festival this August, shows that he has been listening to these critics, sort of. Takaaki Nomi plays Kanjuro, a woebegone samurai who has chucked his sword and is on the run with his young daughter, Tae (Sea Kumada), as the story begins.

Wanted for deserting his clan, Kanjuro is captured by samurai from another and set an unusual task by its oddball lord (Jun Kunimura): Make the lord’s depressed son, whose mother has just died, smile. He will have 30 chances, one a day. If at the end 30 days the son is still grin-free, Kanjuro has to commit seppuku (ritual disembowelment).

His two jailers (Itsuji Itao and Tokio Emoto) escort him to a spacious, if dank, cell whose previous inhabitants look to have been horses.

Allowed to tag along, little Tae tells Kanjuro, with a voice that could peel paint, that he is a poor excuse for a samurai. Every harsh word rings true: Kanjuro has lost not only his sword — the symbol of his samurai status — but every semblance of manly dignity and pride. The next day, playing the clown for the lord and his son, he fails miserably. How can this pathetic figure, with zero talent, hope to save his own skin?

Matsumoto takes a big risk writing this character, who is passive to the point of nullity. His jailers soon take over as Kanjuro’s idea men, devising one ludicrous stunt after another that steadily escalate in scale — and danger. Kanjuro goes glumly along, but his progress as a comedian is nil.

One reference point is the stone-faced screen persona of silent-era genius, Buster Keaton, though his characters had a droll charm. Kanjuro, however, is a straight-arrow samurai, a class proverbially known for smiling once every three years.

But Matsumoto knows what he is about; Kanjuro may be a stiff, but he is also dogged and game — and those attributes become the source of laughs. Also, the gags not only grow in size, but also cleverly illustrate what might be called the history of comedy in Japan, from traditional party stunts (slices of fruit over the eyes, chopsticks up the nose) to elaborate props and machinery of the type found on the wilder Japanese variety shows.

This comedy, outsiders often complain, is based on humiliation and cruelty, but as Kanjuro so eloquently (if wordlessly) shows, an abused comic can earn sympathy and admiration by displaying his ganbaru (never-say-die) spirit, as well as his tolerance of pain. The crowd starts laughing with him, not at him.

Like Matsumoto’s previous two efforts, “Scabbard Samurai” begins more as an ingeniously elaborated skit than a proper film. To deepen his simple story, Matsumoto adds a subplot involving Tae that aims for a tear as well as a smile. Since Tae, as played by 9-year-old Kumada, is such an unsentimental scrapper, this works better than it should.

But the film belongs to Nomi’s nerdish, bespectacled Kanjuro, who brings it triumphantly to its inevitable, but not overly obvious, conclusion.

Hollywood has already bought “Big Man Japan” to remake, probably as some sort of sci-fi/fantasy spectacle. It’s hard to imagine, though, how Hollywood could ever reprise Kanjuro — unless Keaton comes back from the dead.

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