Thursday, September 12, 2013 proved to be one of those extraordinary festival days for me. I found myself closing the day with a trio of highly interesting films from Asia, the last two forming one of the most perfect double bills in my two decades of attending TIFF. Cold Eyes is a decent thriller, falling apart in the final act, but told with enough style to keep it interesting throughout. This paled compared to the extraordinary Moebius, the latest from Kim Ki-Duk, a film steeped in sarcasm and sadomasochism. The audience was raucous and perfectly in tune with the tonality of the film.
In the very same venue, moments after Moebius spooled, the regular denizens of Midnight Madness joined up at the Ryerson for the return of Matsumoto Hitoshi to the slate. His Dainipponjin (later retitled Big Man Japan) played back in 2007, and I frankly didn't know what to make of it (I did quip that it was "basically Man Bites Hulk").
Symbol played back in 2009, a screening that due to mid-fest exhaustion I skipped, something I've regretted since. Since then I've setup my fest to attend every midnight screening, and had a chance this year to witness the Matsumoto gong show first hand.
Outside the venue were what amounted to almost a thousand screaming fans, Japanese faces contorting as they shouted out to Hitoshi and his cast as they walked the red carpet. For a film that stars another MM darling, Ohmori Nao from 2001's Ichi The Killer, it was like a rich kind of homecoming.
I adored the screening, it was such a delightful collision of humour and self-reflexive philosophizing. Too often I find many works of this type far too broad and slaptick for my liking (a sampling of Matsumoto's TV work on YouTube illustrates sketches that on first look seem to simply not be my cup of tea), but this film beautifully encapsulates the right mix of lunacy and wit that I found enchanting.
The next afternoon I had the honour of speaking to Matsumoto, meeting him at a local hotel. There was a television crew setup to catch my own reaction to speaking with the man ("What was it like speaking with him?"), making the experience even more "meta", a feature well in keeping with the theme of the film. We exchanged cards, he addressed me as "Jason-san", and we settled in for what amounted to almost a 30 minute conversation, made slightly cumbersome as we were forced to speak through translation. Nonetheless, the director was engaging and introspective, if very deliberate with his pace, often pausing to reflect deeply upon a question, providing answers with a great earnestness.
ScreenAnarchy: Welcome to Toronto. What was it like showing this film to a predominantly non-Japanese Audience? What does this work playing at Midnight Madness mean to you?
Matsumoto-san: It was a very inspiring experience. I've been to a lot of festivals, but this was the one with which I felt really close to the audience. I felt that they have a very acute sense of humour and I felt like they were ahead of me.
Does your humour have to change when making a film, which by its scope also tends to play for an international audience, versus what you do for local Japanese television?
I used to [make this chance] when I was making a film, but actually, when I saw the Toronto audience, that actually gave me an idea that maybe I don't have to be so mindful of the difference of the culture.
So when scripting a film that is so on the surface crazy but underneath is all ideas, how much of a challenge is it to make the balance between lunacy and coherence?
I never set out to make a "comedy comedy", but with this film we knew that the script was very crazy and wild. It goes in all of these directions that you don't expect it to, so I thought it would be a good idea to have the comedy emerge naturally, so that it is just evoked. That's actually how it happened.
How do you know when you've gone too far?
With this one, there are moments that perhaps I went too far, but then I just wanted to keep going as far as I can go because I can always blame the 100 year old director.
I felt like that 100 year old man watching that film, grinning ear to ear.
How strong a connection do you see between the three films that have played here, which are of very unique construction and how different are they from your television projects?
For [my] past films in particular, I do admit that I was making them as a "comedian director". There was a reflection of myself in them as a comedian. With this particular film, I just really wanted to work on it as a film director and really direct. So as long as I directed as a director, I thought that things would probably work themselves out with this particular film.
So now you see yourself, not as being the main character, but as the 100 year old director?
That's exactly the point. I actually wanted to play that character in the film but obviously I was not old enough, so I couldn't do that. Hopefully when I become 100, I would love to make a film that confuses everybody!
For me as a critic, I obviously see myself as the people in the room discussing the film. What I loved about it is that you cut the legs out from under any criticism I could make about of the film by having the very discussion inside the work. When you watch movies, are you watching the movie as just an experience, or are you constantly thinking, well, this should be different, or this should be different, even if it's not your own film?
Of course, I always try to think of it from both sides of the line. Then again, with this particular movie I felt that perhaps you can say that this is an unfair film because I can take all of the credits for all of the good points and I can blame that 100 year old guy for all of the bad things that he's done in the movie!
How broad is the pool that you draw from for your sense of what you find funny?
I think it's safe to say that I'm the kind of director who has probably seen [other] films the least. I haven't studied filmmaking in the past, so I have so wildly a different background from other directors. I feel that there is something I can break down in what the notion of film is.
So there's no specific other comedian that you respond to in the same way that international audiences responds to you?
There isn't really.
The reason I ask is because comedy, particularly comedy of ideas, is something that's really difficult to transport. When reading subtitles, not just taking in the broad aspect of physical comedy, too often much is lost in the translation. For me remarkable about your film is it's a film that's both a comedy of ideas and of more slapstick elements. How hard was this balance?
[This is] the very origin of my comedy. If you keep looking at this one man, it's the poignancy of this man's existence, how with an ironic, melancholic twist [the story is told]. That's what I draw my inspiration from for my comedy. The rest of it was a balancing act; how do I balance that and transform it into a comedy?
For me, it plays almost like a funny and smart flipside of Kurosawa's IKIRU. Like Kurosawa's films, it works very well within a Japanese setting but also works well in an international setting.
Please talk about casting the remarkable Ohmori Nao.
When you think of Ohmori Nao, he's not a funny actor, he's not a comedic actor. At this time, with this particular film, I needed someone who could hold a particular tension. I wanted to keep the tension going as long as I can, and that means I needed a professional actor with good acting skills. That was my main thing with the casting.
Was there ever a thought of you playing the lead role?
I did think about it, but as you know, for the Japanese audience, as soon as I appear on the screen, they think comedy, so I really wanted to avoid that.
How did your own view of your own feelings about pain and pleasure change in the making of this film?
[Laughs ruefully] It's a new discovery.
In many ways being a film director is akin to being a dominator or dominatrix.
Yes, I did think that being a film director is being a sadist. But then again, you go into the editing suite, and you have to be the exact opposite, a masochist, so that was actually a new discovery for me.
Together, both S and M.
Thanks to Matsumoto Hitoshi and his entire entourage, as well as to Brian Geldin,Thessa Mooij, Holly Cybulski and Victoria Basova for setting up this interview.