Coherence is abandoned for the fantastical in Matsumoto Hitoshi’s sophomore cinematic outing Symbol
“What’s going on?”
Matsumoto Hitoshi is a very well-known figure in Japan: he’s the boke half of the uber-famous comedy duo Downtown and has been for over thirty years. In recent years, he’s tried to break away from that role, both as part of the team (neither he nor his comedy partner Hamada Masatoshi perform manzai anymore), and on his own and in 2007 released the kaiju-themed mockumentary Big Man Japan. It was a departure from his standard comedy, and well-received for its irreverence. So in 2009, he tried to build on that by releasing Symbol.
This is usually the part of the review where I write the basic synopsis. The problem here is that there isn’t really one. Well, actually, that’s not entirely true. OK, let’s see: the story begins in Mexico, with a nun (Adriana Fricke) drinking and driving down a desert road. She arrives at her family’s house, where she sees little Antonio (Carlos C. Torres), her brother, excited for a wrestling match tonight between Escargot Man (David Quintero), his father, and a much younger fighter. However, his family are concerned that his increasing age may be his downfall.
Meanwhile, a guy (played by Matsumoto in a distractingly terrible wig) wakes up and finds himself in a room. The room is huge, and painted entirely white. The only thing of interest is a single switch on the wall, (which turns out to be a cherub dick). Matsumoto’s exploration of the room leads him to find more switches, each of which produce a single item when pressed. Concerned, he begins to try to formulate a way out of there, with more or less comical results.
Symbol is a really tough film to review because … well, it’s difficult to know what the hell it’s even about. I mean, after all, it’s not called Symbol for nothing. But still, the two storylines have about as little to do with one another as can possibly get until, all of a sudden, they do. Kind of. It’s weird. It’s so weird, you guys. Yet I didn’t feel bothered by this while watching it. I’ve probably seen a dozen movies in a similar style and almost all of them – even ones with stories far more coherent than this – have managed to bore me at some point during its runtime.
This movie is different in that this never happened. The cuts between the family drama in Mexico and the insanity Matsumoto is going through happen at the perfect moments, at the exact right time that a cut is necessary to keep the audience from shuffling away. The wrestler story would have been a slog to sit through as it was, and the cartoonish shenanigans in the white room are fun for a while, but run the risk of getting tiring. Thankfully Matsumoto knows when to escalate matters and when to make the stories converge. And oh boy is that a weird, out of nowhere moment. That the characters and actors are all fairly sympathetic and likeable makes watching this a hell of a lot easier.
I won’t go into too much detail, simply because talking about it might ruin the experience for some of you, and I’d hate to do that. Best to go in fresh, with no clear idea of what to expect, and you might be pleasantly surprised. It’s weird, but with just enough moments of humanity (in both stories) to make you form your own meanings. There just as easily be a metaphor for how your actions affect those around you, and another metaphor for growing up hidden in there, but there could also just as easily not be. It definitely won’t be for everyone’s tastes (I only chose it as a Downtown fan), and can push the limit of what-the-fuckery a tad far sometimes, but if you’re up for something you’ve never seen before, this might just be what you’re looking for.
Verdict: Symbol is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, but Matsumoto’s energetic performance and direction are enough to keep you watching.
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Ratings System
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Sex: None. Well, not unless you count naked cherubs
Fart jokes: 2
Contender for worst wrestler name: Escargot Man. Seriously?
Also known as: しんぼる (Shinboru)
Director: Matsumoto Hitoshi
Writer: Matsumoto Hitoshi
Hitoshi Matsumoto – The Man
Carlos C. Torres – Antonio
David Quintero – Escargot Man, Antonio’s Father
Luis Accinelli – Antonio’s Uncle
Lilian Tapia – Antonio’s Mother
Adriana Fricke – Karen
Ivana Wong – Antonio’s Sister
Arkangel De La Muerte – Aguila De Plata
Matcho Panpu – Tequila Joe
Dick Togo – El Super Demonio
Salam Diagne – African Tribesman