The feature mockumentary doesn’t have many practitioners in Japan. Two who do come to mind are TV comedian Hitoshi Matsumoto (“Big Man Japan,” 2007) and Nobuhiro Yamashita (“Girls in the Psychic Club,” 2014). Both have a dry sense of humor and a bit of a cruel streak.

So does 25-year-old Ken Ninomiya, the mockumentarian of the genre’s latest local example, “Matsumoto Tribe” — though he is arguably “crueler” than either of his better-known senpai (seniors). Watching this zero-budget exercise in desperation and humiliation, which is billed as an “extreme Spartan movie,” I felt I was seeing not so much a comedy as a disturbing glimpse into the darker realities of Japanese show business. The laughs stuck in my throat.

That said, the film has a train-wreck fascination — and delivers a strong final catharsis without falling into feel-good cliches.

Matsumoto Tribe
Run Time 85 mins
Language Japanese
Opens April 15

The title hero is Fighter Matsumoto (Matsumoto Faita in Japanese), a scrappy no-name actor bursting with misplaced confidence in his own greatness. He is aided and abetted by a geeky-looking manager (Masashi Komura) who is similarly loud and deluded. Together this pair invades the streets of Shibuya to publicize Fighter, but when the glad-handing of random strangers fails to results in any roles, they hit on another stratagem: Wangle an audition for the new film by Daishi Matsunaga, an up-and-coming indie director whose 2015 drama “Pieta in the Toilet” (“Toirei no Pieta”) was showered with festival invitations and honors.

They take a round-about route that begins with Tatsuo Kobayashi, another real-life director (“Gassoh,” 2015) who happens to know Matsunaga. First, though, we see a nervous young actress (Honoka Matsumoto) audition for the film, with a gimlet-eyed Matsunaga relentlessly prodding her to cry on cue. (“This is a Japanese movie,” he tells her. “We have to shoot everything in one take.”) Gamely she tries, fails, and tries again, as Matsunaga and his all-male staff impassively gaze on. It’s frankly hard to watch, even when she succeeds. Her heart-rending sobs, the director tells her, are not convincing.

Then Fighter and his manager burst into the room, with the former announcing his intent to audition for Matsumoto’s role. An actor, he proclaims to derisive grins and snorts, should be able to play anything, the opposite sex included. This farce, it seems, can only end in disaster.

But Ninomiya, who set things in motion (and makes the occasional on-camera appearance), appears to lose control of his shoot. The proceedings begin to look like dangerously unscripted reality, with the ending far from certain.

This resembles the by-now common strategy of hidden camera segments on local TV variety shows that prank a supposedly unsuspecting celebrity. And Fighter and his manager can be as gratingly over-the-top as the typical comic tarento doing the pranking.

The reactions of the pranked, including assistant director Takeo Kikuchi (director of “Dear Deer,” 2015) and actor Haruki Takano (“Ken and Kazu”), soon go beyond amused annoyance. The film earned an R-15 rating for its violence, not its nonexistent sex.

But Fighter doesn’t have that nickname for nothing. He’ll prove himself to be a real actor — or a total loser. It’s like boxing movies going back to “Rocky,” but instead of brain damage Fighter risks the shattering of all his illusions.

In “Matsumoto Tribe,” acting is a fighting sport.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.


Coronavirus banner