Hitoshi Matsumoto’s name may not mean much in American households, but in Japan he’s a television superstar. Mainly known as one half of the comic duo Downtown, Matsumoto took his career in a new direction a few years ago when he started directing movies. Like his comedy acts, Matsumoto’s work as a director is zany, surreal and hard to describe in simple terms.
His filmmaking debut, “Big Man Japan,” followed a reluctant superhero, while “Symbol” focused almost entirely on a man trapped in a room surrounded by magical cherub penises. Yes, you read that right. By comparison, Matsumoto’s third feature (already open in Japan) is a little more tangible.
“Scabbard Samurai,” which screened in Locarno’s Piazza Grande section on Thursday to coincide with a retrospective of Matsumoto’s work, follows a downbeat swordsman (Takaaki Nomi) faced with an impossible task. After arrested for abandoning his clan, the man has 30 days to make a feudal lord’s grim-faced son smile. Intermittently a slapstick comedy and an overwrought sentimental family drama (the samurai’s main guide is his young, disapproving daughter), “Scabbard Samurai” is a meandering and offbeat tale as only Matumoto could pull off.
A day before receiving an honor at the Locarno Film Festival, Matumoto sat down with Indiewire and a translator to discuss his career and the perceptions of it around the world. Meanwhile, cameras from Japanese network NHK kept rolling, gathering footage for a six-hour miniseries on Matsumoto set to air this fall.
You have said before that comedy provided you with an escape from your impoverished childhood. “Scabbard Samurai” deals with the redemptive nature of comedy, so I wonder if you see it as a personal project?
I was not really focused on that. What I really care about is an original idea.
This is very far from being a conventional samurai film. Were you trying to play off audience expectations?
I don’t want to make films that are already made. I want to make films that are my own original ideas. Every film I make isn’t one I’ve made before. In almost every samurai film, you see the origin of the samurai, but in this film, there isn’t one scene like that. In most samurai films, you see the sword. In this one, you do not.
The tone of your films are very specific. How would you describe it?
It’s my intention to change from comedy to seriousness. You can’t say it’s just a comedy or a tragedy, but there’s no gradation. It changes quickly. In this sense, it’s a very new approach to genre.
“Symbol” and “Scabbard Samurai” both have life-affirming messages, whereas “Big Man Japan” is less overtly spiritual. Can you explain this shift in your work?
For me, it was important that I bring originality to the film…
You keep talking about originality, but it’s starting to sound like you don’t enjoy elaborating on the themes of your work. How can you avoid discussing the interpretations of a movie called “Symbol”?
It’s not that I had a strong intention of making a religious film with “Symbol.” It just came out that way. You don’t have to probe it too deeply. It just became like that. I wasn’t too concerned about it. For example, let’s say this glass of soda in front of us were to spill. Maybe somebody could take it for a symbol. It’s just cathartic to do that.
How do you think your work is perceived in different parts of the world?
I think that in Japan, because I’m really famous as a comedian, in a way it’s a bit difficult when I make films. They’re always seen in the background, on the side of my other activities. In other countries, I’m more appreciated as a film director, it’s not just a background thing. So it’s completely different.
Are there any films that have inspired you to make your own?
I don’t like to take inspiration from other filmmakers. But when I was making “Scabbard Samurai,” I was thinking about “Paper Moon.”
Do you identify more now as a filmmaker than as a comedian?
It’s a difficult question. I’m a little tired of all these TV comedy programs, and have many plans to work on film productions. So I compete with myself more.
There is currently a plan to remake “Big Man Japan” in the United States. What do you make of this?
Of course, I’m very happy that the film was well-received in America. I wonder if the film will be shot from the point of view of a Japanese person. I also wonder how it will be with an American director. I’m very curious. It’s not really that I have to judge this. It’s rather the spectators who must decide.
Do you watch any American movies or TV yourself?
I watch “Columbo.” I’m very sad about Peter Falk’s death.