Drafthouse Films' Obscure Objects Of Desire: Matsumoto Hitoshi's R100
The astonishingly surreal work of Japanese comedian-turned-filmmaker Matsumoto Hitoshi has long been championed here at ScreenAnarchy, and in some ways his fourth feature film - R100 - transcends anything he has yet produced. Positioned not as a comedy, but rather as the potentially upsetting tale of a reserved, unremarkable salary man struggling to raise his young son while his wife lies motionless in a coma, R100 has all the trappings of a classic Asian tearjerker. But rather than have his protagonist wallow in his predicament, or even find an understanding shoulder to cry own, R100 sees Katayama Takafumi (played by Omori Nao) enlist in the ultimate S&M club, with increasingly ridiculous consequences.
As our own Todd Brown stated in his review of the film out of the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival:
"While Matsumoto's work is often funny, it is hard to even refer to him as a comedian at this point. He is a world builder of the highest order, a man who sees thing through a perplexing, often confounding, always left of centre and surprising lens. The absurdity of his work is never without a point and he is long, long past the point of simply cracking jokes to try and get a laugh. The laughs just happen to be a handy side effect of a larger design."
R100 certainly marks a noticeable shift away from the largely comedic antics of Matsumoto's three previous features. While many still hold up his 2009 effort Symbol as the comedian's crowning cinematic achievement, much of that film still resembles a one-man stand-up act of clownish physical comedy - albeit an incredibly successful one that transcends into something altogether more ambitious in its final moments. Likewise, the faux documentary Big Man Japan (2007) and the repetitious, episodic Scabbard Samurai (2010) were committed to delivering serious laughs within their particular parameters. In R100, however, the film lives by the very guidelines stated in the year-long contract to which Katayama commits himself, specifically "there are no rules".
At any time Katayama will be met by one of the many "Queens" employed by the highly exclusive Club Bondage. With no limitations and no way of backing out of his agreement, Katayama positions himself as the ultimate submissive partner, and must endure whatever these women subject him to. It is somewhat amusing, and one can only assume deliberate, that R100 arrives on Blu-ray in the US hot on the heels of Sam Taylor-Johnson's big screen adaptation of E.L. James supposedly titillating best-seller, Fifty Shades Of Grey. Audiences are lapping up the rather tame and sterile antics of Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey (at the time of writing the film has accumulated over US$500 million globally) yet manages to say almost nothing about dominance and submission.
Those who have nevertheless been up in arms about what that film's copious, yet erotically barren, displays of bare flesh and light spanking say about gender roles in modern relationships should snatch up a copy of R100 at the first opportunity. Not only do the women play the dominant partners to Katayama's submissive, but the film actually understands what these roles mean. It is Katayama who takes pleasure in this situation - and his reasons for doing so are justified without needing to be clumsily over-explained. Meanwhile the women dedicate themselves to fulfilling their side of the bargain, whipping, kicking and humiliating their client in all manner of inconvenient and potentially compromising locations. And all this is explored without a single salacious shot of exposed flesh.
But of course, Matsumoto hasn't set out to make an erotic film, but rather a film about the search for happiness and life fulfilment. Katayama has become emotionally inert through personal tragedy and the drab mundanity of his daily grind. He seems only to want to feel something again, and seeks it out through extreme subjugation, embarrassment and pain. However, with Matsumoto at the helm it is not long before the circumstances, and dominatrixes themselves, become increasingly absurd and surreal, and events spin wildly out of control.
You see, it is not only Katayama who is looking for gratification, but also Matsumoto's onscreen alter-ego, the 100-year-old director responsible for this tall tale, whose aim is to make a film only those as old as he will understand (hence the film's title, a play on the Japanese rating system). To say that R100 gets a little meta would be to understate one of the many reasons why this increasingly anarchic endeavour just gets better and better as it goes on.
Todd wrapped up his review by stating:
"What the film does deliver is an intensely intelligent, more witty than funny, and fabulously acted study of the lengths people will go to secure happiness...demonstrating once again that Matsumoto is one of the most ferociously unique filmmakers on the planet."
R100 is not a sexy or sensual film, nor a particularly laugh-out-loud funny one either. It is, however, a whip smart, ceaselessly inventive and perplexingly glorious filmic experience. Matsumoto clearly has far more left to say than his early comedies would have us believe, and on the strength of R100, the director - who has never received any formal filmmaking training - is evolving into an accomplished, visually aware and cerebrally ambitious story-teller. One who also happens to have one of the most fertile and unique senses of humour in the industry.
R100 arrives on Blu-ray and DVD in the US today, courtesy of Drafthouse Films, and is absolutely essential viewing for any fans of Asian Cinema, off-the-wall comedy or hell, even sado-masochism. Unfortunately there is little in the way of supplemental material, save for an enlightening Q&A with wrestler-turned-actress Lindsay Kay Hayward, the theatrical trailer and Drafthouse's signature reversible cover featuring new artwork by Jay Shaw. Nevertheless, R100 hits all your pleasure points at once, in the most deliriously baffling ways imaginable, and for that alone deserves your prolonged, intensive attention.