Hitoshi Matsumoto has a big reputation among his fellow Japanese peers, and he’s considered to be a very, very funny guy. He made his name on television and the country’s popular form of comedy known as owarai, playing the boke half of the duo known as “Downtown” with his friend Masatoshi Hamada. Now, boke is the universally recognizable comedic trope of the one who misinterprets everything and appears to be a slight airhead. After watching Matsumoto’s latest feature film “R100,” which has been making its festival rounds this year, the conscious force that’s working against any kind of straight-forward, easily-understandable and anchored narrative in the film makes sense to have the fruit of its artistic loins planted in misinterpretation and airheadedness. And that’s not meant to be a slight against Matsumoto. On the contrary, it is the fool and the village idiot who usually has the right of it in so many classic stories and traditions. The question is, are you able to bear through the, at times, torturous shenanigans to truly appreciate the maturity and messages behind them?
Takafumi Katayama (Nao Omori) is a regular salesman who lives modestly with his young son and a father-in-law who visits quite often, cooking dinners and being a family. Takafumi’s wife is currently in a coma so times are tough and one of the ways that Takafumi finds to alleviate this mundane and heartbreaking existence is to join a club where subtle things have no place starting with the club’s name: Bondage. Yes, it’s literally an S&M club and while its name leaves a lot to be desired in terms of originality, the way the club operates makes up for it in spades. A contract is signed for a full year, you can’t cancel mid-term and as part of the pleasure, various dominatrixes at undisclosed times and locations pop into your life to give you a taste of what really turns you on: humiliation, embarrassment, beatings and submission. For a full year. Takafumi reluctantly joins this club, but things start to get out of hand after it becomes clear that the club’s rules have no limits when it comes to their member’s personal life. Takafumi’s relationships at work and in his home, including regular visits to the hospital to see his comatose wife, are placed in danger and harm’s way.
In many ways, Matsumoto structures “R100” like the S&M show that the club promotes. One of its credos is that “not knowing when it happens increases the tension” and is meant to be deeply satisfying for perverted minds of regular schmoes like Takafumi. The film’s levels are measured by shit you never see coming in a million years. The first scene is one of many great examples: a woman is checking herself out in the mirror of a restaurant’s bathroom; cigarette puffing on one side of her mouth and a long trench coat hiding who-knows-what-kind-of-sexiness (we find out soon enough). She walks out with theatrical gusto and sits down opposite Takafumi, who is mumbling something about Beethoven‘s “Ode to Joy” that’s playing in the background (a musical number that becomes something of a motif for the theme of pleasure and joy). She listens, doesn’t say a word and just as he puts his lips to his cup to take a sip, she gets up and roundhouse kicks him in the face—spilling the drink all over the window. Whether you burst out laughing (like this reviewer did) or you sit there scratching your head going, “The fuck just happened?” is a good indication of how you will feel towards everything that’s about to happen in “R100.” But it doesn’t stop there, and this is where Matsumoto starts to go off on one of his many, many tangents; Takafumi begins to stalk his trench-coat lady until she kicks him down some stairs and his face contorts into a wide smile, his eyes go all black and his world starts to vibrate (literally) with pleasure. This is how Takafumi gets off, and this is Matsumoto getting off on our own disoriented confusion.
Though there are poignant moments between Takafumi and his comatose wife, between the son and the father and the sweet old father-in-law who comes off as the most innocent creature on Earth, make no mistake that “R100” is an acid-trip dipped in a creamy soup of magic mushrooms and off-the-wall antics that climax into one of the most painfully hilarious B-movie moments in movies this past decade. It’s a trip and a half, and you’ll need a few things in order to digest it fully: knowledge of the very unique and specific Japanese sense of humour and complete disengagement from any conventionality. With “R100” you’re free-falling and you’re not sure if the parachute is going to work. Does a montage of food being delivered, crushed by hand and subsequently eaten in order to reach a point of ecstasy sound like something you’d find entertaining? Does the Queen of Saliva and all the connotations the name carries make you turn your head away in disgust or does it pique your curiosity? These are questions you’d do well to ask yourself.
There is very little middle ground to be found with a movie like “R100,” so it’s a marvel that that’s exactly where we seem to be with it. On the one hand, it really is funny on more than one occasion, and it’s the kind of humour that feels original because you’ve rarely seen it outside Japanese television sets. There are plenty of motifs about joy, the unexpected and self-deprecation that are done in an impressive manner to make you truly appreciate the method behind the madness. On the other hand, how much is enough, where does the line stop and how many tangents can a single film take before it starts making bad parodies look like artistic masterpieces? As compelling as “R100” is in spurts, it’s ultimately an exercise in excessiveness that only a niche audience will be able to fully stomach. [C+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 Festival du Nouveau Cinema.