How do you follow up Big Man Japan
? Answer: with something even more surreal. "How surreal?" I hear you ask. Answer: thousands of singing angel penises, Mexican wrestlers, a Barack Obama cameo and a white room with no doors or windows in a nowhere dimension.
The best description I've seen of this one is the "2001 of J-quirk cinema", which overstates the film's significance but is still a useful description because both films' finales go batshit in a similar way. Japanese audiences disliked it. They thought it was gibberish and I'm not saying they're wrong. However it did better in the West, which I'd suggest might be because it helps to have some theological awareness with this one. You don't have to be religious yourself, mind you. Atheists will be able to respond to it too. The important thing though is simply to be able to see the resonances in the first place, whereas of course Japan has no real tradition of Judeo-Christian religion.
The film has two plot strands. One involves a Mexican family where dad happens to be a luchador called Escargot Man. This is realistic, with Spanish dialogue. It's not that interesting, to be honest, but Mexico looks great and this B-plot gets the right amount of screen time, i.e. only enough to make you wonder where all this might be going and what in the world it's doing in the film in the first place. The foul-mouthed nun made me laugh, smoking a cigar and driving a pick-up truck through the desert. There's also some character work, with Escargot Man's son getting teased at school because he keeps losing his fights.
This culminates in wrestling. Luchadores throw each other around in approved fashion.
The A-plot stars Hitoshi Matsumoto, in a film co-written by Hitoshi Matsumoto and directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto. In case you're wondering who he is, he's a massively popular TV comedian who's been half of the stand-up duo Downtown since 1983. (He's the "boke", i.e. the idiot who says dumb things and gets smacked around by the "tsukkomi".) Here too his character is very stupid. We first meet him in a featureless white room, wanting to get out of there and go home. How did he get there? Has he died and gone to heaven? The film never answers this and never for a moment presents Matsumoto as anything but utterly real and ordinary, but it's conceivable that the thousands of flying winged cherubs might be significant. Admittedly the cherubs don't hang around for long, but they also don't completely depart. Instead they leave their penises sticking out of the walls.
Matsumoto thus has thousands of porcelain-like penises to play with. Did you know that if you stimulate a cherub's penis, you get a surprise present? Well, you do now. However these presents aren't what you're thinking. Instead they're random objects like chopsticks, sushi, soy sauce, a bonsai tree in a pot, baseball manga, etc. These are often specifically Japanese... but not always, as is shown by the African tribesman who'll walk out of the wall if you happen to have pressed the tribesman-summoning penis.
This is a simple and bonkers premise, which Matsumoto takes into game-show territory. His mission: to make use of the objects that have been assigned to him. This is funny. Admittedly it's deadpan humour, as was Big Man Japan
, but I found it more effective because that film got a bit downbeat for me. I wouldn't call it depressing, but it certainly wasn't cheerful. This on the other hand is in some ways like a live-action Looney Tunes. Matsumoto hurls himself around the room, has water poured on his head, gets cherub backsides farting in his face and other such hi-jinks. He has to use items to get at other items on the other side of the room before a penis bounces back to its former position.
The designer of the room is also a sadistic bastard. This is funny too, as are Matsumoto's reactions.
All this stuff is demented and bears little resemblance to anything you'll ever have seen before in a movie, but it has one potential problem. Matsumoto is dumb. At first I thought it was the movie being stupid, as Matsumoto repeatedly failed to do the obvious thing and instead would spend five minutes trying silly ways of trying to do something that's obviously going to be less effective. If you're the kind of person who shouts at TV screens, this film will make you hoarse. Put something heavy on it! Lift the jug over your head! Put things in it that aren't water! Roll the flipping thing! Matsumoto will usually (but not always) get there in the end, but dear oh dear, does he make it hard for himself. It takes him 55 minutes to think of putting a marker against an Important Penis He Must Not Forget.
These two wildly different plots converge. No, I'm not telling you how. There's also an appearance from Kiss (the American rock band, not the Korean one). We visit Russia and China. Matsumoto grows a Jesus beard and quite possibly becomes God, in a sequence addressing the intellectual requirements of the job (by implication low), how one should regard claims of moral or spiritual superiority (ahem) and a frankly terrifying reductio ad absurdum of the notion that we live in a mechanistic universe where everything is caused by God. I see completely why this didn't play in Japan, but it makes sense to me and there will be a lot of people for whom this film made not the slightest scrap of sense whatsoever.
This also provides the perfect answer for what would otherwise be holes in the story logic, e.g. the toilet. There isn't a toilet. Matsumoto eats, but we see no indication that he urinates or defecates. Why?
There's also a bit that reminded me of David Tennant's 3D glasses in that white room in Army of Ghosts/Doomsday. It's even possible that Matsumoto was aware of the similarity. The first two 21st century Doctor Who seasons were shown in Japan on NHK, I think.
In summary: surreal. Matsumoto is a strange person, although this shouldn't surprise anyone since Japanese manzai stand-up comedy is all about nonsense piled upon nonsense. It's apparently pointless, until it turns out to have a point after all. Maybe. Perhaps. Depending on your point of view. Matsumoto is a frustrating protagonist, with his stupidity and his unconvincing inability to run, but then again I think that's the point. Even by Japanese standards, this is an odd one. It often left me nonplussed, but I also think it'll stay with me and rise in my estimation over time for its combination of a wild theme and extraordinary deadpan loopiness.