Japanese comedian Hitoshi Matusmoto successfully made the leap to writer-director-star with his 2007 debut "Big Man Japan," a zany take on the superhero genre that simultaneously managed to make its fantastical protagonist human. The unlikely combination of surrealism and pathos would continue to define Matsumoto's astonishingly unique oeuvre with ensuing projects "Symbol" (about a man trapped in a room with cherub penises that unlock the meaning of life) and "Scabbard Samurai" (in which an imprisoned samurai must perform gags to make his captor laugh in order evade a death sentence). With his fourth feature, "R100," Matsumoto merges his outlandish wit with a satiric take on the Japanese ratings system and disorienting tangents that's second only to the impermeable "Symbol" in its riotous absurdity. Yet despite its head-scratching moments, "R100" also maintains an elevated cult movie consistency that's par for the course with Matsumoto, by combining its playful irrationality with an emotional and philosophical core.
After the utterly abstract "Symbol," Matsumoto veered toward more traditional storytelling with "Scabbard Samurai," and apparently took notes from both experiences: "R100" combines the melancholic undertones of his last movie with an unhinged, anarchic quality that transcends any basic description, though it's certainly worth a shot: The basic plot involves soft-spoken department store worker Takafumi (Nao Omori) attempting to care for his adolescent son while his wife remains stuck in a coma. Seeking extreme measures to find solace for his grief, he stumbles into a secret club called 'Bondage" in which members agree to allow dominatrixes to show up unexpectedly throughout his day and humiliate him. From the first scene, in which a leather-clad woman kicks Takafumi down the stairs following an unadventurous date, Matsumoto establishes a running motif to convey his protagonist deriving pleasure from the beatings: a CGI halo appearing around his head. Its recurring appearance provides one of several gags -- another involves characters randomly sensing earthquakes even as the room remains still -- that imbue "R100" with slapstick comedy even as Matsumoto deepens his aims.
With a casual abruptness, Matsumoto adds a new layer to his plot: Just as Takafumi starts to regret signing up for the club when another S&M worker corners him at work, the picture freezes and the scene shifts to a screening room where a ratings committee is viewing the movie along with its fictional director, a 100 year-old-man screening his final work. As they routinely take breaks, alternately between feeble stabs at interpreting its meaning and sitting in baffled silence, the possibility arrises that only fellow centenarians can understand it -- hence the imaginary rating of the title. Poking fun at the objective implications of ratings, Matsumoto also uses this framing device to give the main storyline carte blanche to run wild.
Suggesting "Fight Club" as directed by Luis Buñuel, the plight of Takafumi continues along its cartoonishly reckless trajectory, with the beleaguered man facing down a series of combative dominatrixes under the Orwellian gaze of their employer and worrying about the fate of his family. Setting aside what it all means, the sheer lunacy is increasingly hilarious, particularly as it enters "Big Man Japan" territory with its superhuman creations: Dominatrixes with inventive personas like the Queen of Impressions and the Queen of Saliva stalk Takafumi from every direction to keep him from asserting control of his life. And that, in turn, arouses him.
The climactic showdown, a crazed action set piece involving ninjas, grenades and an unexpectedly upbeat musical finish, gets at the essence of Matsumoto's ingenuity: By pitting inexplicable weirdness against a somber quality, he makes bold grasps for the meaning of life and concludes his search with a shrug that serves the agenda at play: How does a ratings board apply logic to something in such gleeful defiance of it? Flaunting its extremes, "R100" gets away with the naughty sensibility. "You must always be submissive," Takafumi is told by his captor, though the statement extends to the experience of the movie. There's no way to handle Matsumoto's nutty storytelling unless you're willing to just sit back and take it.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? While Warner Bros. will release the film in Japan, "R100" is unlikely to find a North American distributor with any company other than a genre label able to play up its irreverence to a VOD audience. Its theatrical prospects are severely limited by the strange plot and foreign language.