Hitoshi Matsumoto* is fast becoming the master of something I guess we could call the cinematic shaggy-dog story. His movies never go where they're supposed to, are never about what they claim to be, and are always this way defiantly so. By the time I got to the homestretch of Matsumoto's Big Man Japan, I'd given up on even trying to figure out where the movie was going, but I also didn't feel like I was being punished for sticking it out. Its weirdness was rewarding.
Now comes R100, a movie about defeated expectations, both for the audience and the characters. That is both the best and worst thing about it. Best in that Matsumoto hasn't started playing it safe or cloning someone else's eccentricities (little is more depressing than watching a true original do that); worst in that the payoff we do get is so strange, so many levels removed from what even an existing Matsumoto fan could gear up for, that I wouldn't be surprised if even his longtime stalwarts write him off. I haven't, but I suspect I have an unfair advantage.
R100 is ostensibly about a middle-aged stiff, Katayama (sallow-eyed Nao Omori, he who was Ichi the Killer), who has a job as a furniture salesman and brings up his son by himself now that his wife's comatose in the hospital. One day he visits a strange S&M club, and signs up for a program to make his life all the more interesting. For one year, he will be visited randomly in public by dominatrixes who will beat him up and torment him. Moreover, his contract cannot be cancelled; he has to endure a year of this, period.
Not that he seems to have a problem with such an arrangement — at least, not at first. Being beaten and made miserable produces in him a kind of ecstasy, one visualized hilariously with dime-store digital visual effects. But gradually, problems creep in. The doms start showing up at his place of work, then at his home. They elevate their humiliations into elaborate rituals that would have made the Marquis de Sade drop his quill in surprise. Then one of the doms dies in a stupid accident in Katayama's house, and all manner of hell breaks loose ... I think. One can never be sure what really does or doesn't happen in a Hitoshi Matsumoto movie, and while that's normally part of the fun, here it started to get in the way.
Up until about the halfway mark, R100 seemed easy enough to suss out: evidently Matsumoto had watched David Fincher's The Game and decided to pay it homage-of-a-sort. Then the movie lays a little more of its actual hand on the table, by way of a truly strange meta-framing device reminiscent of the sort of thing Quentin Dupieux did in Rubber. The movie itself becomes the subject of commentary, and derision, by characters in it, and through this the movie toys with our own expectations as much as the main character's own expectations are also toyed with.
If all that sound rather dry, especially for a movie that has some very broad belly laughs, it's only because conveying the flavor of a movie this compulsively nonconformant is like trying to pick a team to root for in a sport where you're not even sure of the rules. R100 functions like a regular movie in the abstract — it has setup, development, climax, and resolution — but the way those elements are embodied in the film seems designed to ensure that any toehold we could obtain with the material will be sabotaged. It's all part of the design, sure, but there has to be more to the design than just calculated bafflement, doesn't there?
I am prepared to forgive a great deal with a movie if it shows me something I've never seen before, or does something familiar in an audacious and personal way. R100 borders on being both of those things, but never quite delivers on either one. It's the sort of movie that sounds more interesting to summarize and describe than it is to actually watch, where the things that seem groundbreaking and daring while they're unspooling in front of you fall flat in retrospect. It's only so interesting to watch a snake devour its own tail for 100 minutes. I do, however, give Matsumoto credit for once again coming up with an ending so far out of left field, so outré, that even Takashi Miike would have blinked at it. That counts for something, I suppose. Me, I'm holding out hope Matsumoto's Symbol will finally get released here, and then I can find out what all the screaming about that film has been about.
* or Hitosi Matumoto, as his name is sometimes Anglicized.