DIRECTED BY: Hitoshi Matsumoto
FEATURING: Hitoshi Matsumoto, David Quintero, Luis Accinelli
PLOT: A Japanese man wakes up in an enormous white chamber whose walls and floor are littered with cherubic phalluses; meanwhile a Mexican luchador, “Escargot Man,” prepares for a wrestling match.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The main narrative, following the action in the white room, is so absolutely removed from reality it demands a place on the List, while the Mexican wrestling scenes remain incongruous and weirdly exotic throughout.
COMMENTS: It’s difficult to talk about why Symbol is so arresting and oddly rewarding without spoiling details of the story or the reveals near the film’s end. Suffice to say the two seemingly unrelated narratives come together in a most unexpected and ridiculous way, and the torture experienced by the Japanese protagonist in the white room leads to a truly transcendent revelation by the film’s end.
The film is structured under three headings: “Learning, Practice and Future.” Learning refers to the rough education the Japanese man receives in the white room from the mischievous owners of the Cherubic phalluses, while the particulars of Practice and Future I’ll leave viewers to discover on their own.
Much of the early joy of the film involves watching Matsumoto interact with the white room and the objects released therein, seeing his mounting frustration at the “bait and switch” as the Cherubs deliver alternately helpful or useless items. They give him an endless stream of sushi rolls, but no soy sauce until after he’s eaten the very last one; 3D glasses direct him to press a particular button, only to have an enormous Cherub behind break wind on him. Another scene sees him releasing an endless pile of chopsticks before he finally presses a different phallus, sending an office trolley careening into his shin. This comedic torment in the vein of silent film comics like Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd continues until Matsumoto recognizes a means of escape…only to be led to earth-shattering alternatives.
There is very little to fault in this film; from its production values to its execution it is equally unique, vibrant and visually arresting. The pacing is surprisingly jaunty for an episodic film, and it actually rewards a re-watch to see how all the various threads build towards the film’s close. Some viewers may find the ridiculous payoffs a little too surreal to be satisfying; to them I can only recommend the consolation to be found in the philosophical treatise “In Praise of Silly,” the book never written by comedian Mike Myers’s father, who believed silliness “was our natural state, and we only get serious to get to silly.” Symbol contains moments of textbook Japanese cinematic weirdness.
A possible weak element of the film (other than two unnecessary moments of flatulence humor) could be identified in Matsumoto’s performance; while his timing is excellent and he works as a hapless, unassuming everyman, his constant screaming is often irritating. A more skilled slapstick performer like Jim Carrey, Lee Evans or Rowan Atkinson could have made the physical comedy transcendent and ballet-like rather than merely solid and amusing. This is a rare case where I would not mind a U.S. remake.
I know little about director and star Matsumoto, other than he is one half of a comic duo—the boke or “funny man” of a team called “Downtown”—on Japanese television, just like his contemporary Takeshi “Beat” Kitano (Hana-bi, Violent Cop) was at the beginning of his career. The comparison to Kitano is apt due to the similar career trajectory the two men have followed, although Matsumoto only has four feature film directorial credits to his name and none of the Kitano’s international recognition—at least for the time being. Also, from a cursory YouTube glance, Matsumoto’s TV persona appears to be that of a histrionic, put-upon weed (the character he develops here follows a similar vein) whereas Kitano’s comedy always came from his role as bully.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…one of the most bizarre, impenetrable films of the year. That doesn’t mean it is not funny, intriguing and visually impressive, just don’t expect to come out being anything less than baffled.”–Owen Van Spall, “Eye for Film” (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by many people, but “Roy” was first when he advised us in 2010 “You gotta check out this flick ‘Symbol’ by the director of Big Man Japan.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)