Symbol (Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2009)

“Ultimately creative, laugh out loud funny and leaving you in a slightly bedazzled trance.” – Niels Matthijs, TWITCH

Drafthouse Films LogoA Mexican wrestler called Escargot Man broods over an ominous feeling.  Is it his upcoming match with his younger, stronger opponent Tequila Joe or something deeper?  Meanwhile, a man with mop-top hair and polka-dot pajamas (Hitoshi Matsumoto) awakens in a sealed white room, faced with an array of unusual switches that might provide his means of escape or may just drive him mad with frustration.  Reveling in low-brow comedy and physical humour, the unforeseeable connection between the two worlds is eventually revealed in spectacularly astounding fashion.  Hitoshi Matsumoto plays triple duty as writer, director, and star to this laugh out loud examination of cause and effect, producing “a candy coated, Japanese game show version of a Franz Kafka short story” (Todd Brown, Twitch).  Side-splitting and mind-blowing, Symbol is a film experience that defies description and categorization.

Special Features:

  • Making-of featurette with optional commentary by filmmaker and star Hitoshi Matsumoto
  • Deleted and extended scenes
  • Thearical Trailer
  • 16-page booklet of photos, promotional art, and an essay by Todd Brown

“That Stinks!” Edition – Package Includes:

  • Symbol on Blu-ray or Standard DVD featuring over 2 hours of bonus material
  • High quality 720p HD Digital Download of the Film Available on Street Date
  • 27″ x 40″ Reversible Poster
  • Limited Edition “Escargot Man” Luchador Mask

With news that Drafthouse Films will be releasing Hitoshi Matsumoto’s festival-pleasing R-100 (2013), we can’t help but wonder what happened to Matsumoto’s earlier feature, Symbol.  Despite being a festival favourite at the time of its initial release, Symbol didn’t seem to obtain distribution thereafter and was slow to make its way to hard media in Europe (and still nothing on disc in North America).  To be honest, this can’t be too surprising, as Symbol shares a brand of Japanese weirdness comparable to Gen Sekiguchi’s Survive Style 5+ (2004), Funky Forest: The First Contact (Katsuhito Ishii, Hajime Ishimine, and Shunichiro Miki, 2005) and its sequel The Warped Forest (Shunichiro Miki, 2011).  Still, Symbol remains fondly remembered, with the kind of devoted core audience that only the wacky edge of Japanese cinema can inspire.  With their foot already in the door, perhaps Drafthouse can gain access to Matsumoto’s back catalogue of films yet to be released on hard media in North America and bring Symbol to long-yearning film fans.  (Note: Matsumoto’s Scabbard Samurai (2010) also remains unreleased in North America and is in need of rediscovery, but that’s another post…)

Many reviews of Symbol purposefully avoid revealing too much, as there is real benefit to going into the quirky, surreal movie with as little prior knowledge as possible.  Still, the film is now 4 years old and plenty has since been written on it, so we’ll go a little farther in discussing Symbol‘s plot, ultimately coming up short on its most unusual reveals.  Symbol presents two unexpectedly connected narratives.  The first, which only makes up approximately a quarter of the film, involves an unimpressive Mexican wrestler called Escargot Man.  The luchador prepares for and ultimately participates in tag team match clearly out of his league.  His family roots for him but there is something different about the withdrawn Escargot Man this day.  The second and principal narrative involves an unnamed Japanese man (Hitoshi Matsumoto) who awakes in an empty white room wearing some goofy polka-dot pajamas and sporting an absurd bowl-cut.  Revealed to him are scores of cherubim who recede into the room’s walls, leaving only their tiny penises and scrota protruding.  The man discovers that by pressing each wee member he is provided a random object – a toothbrush first, a megaphone second, then lawn chairs, manga volumes, duct tape, festival masks, chopsticks, even a bonsai tree.  This section of the film, titled “Education,” revolves around the man discovering the mechanism of his escape from the room and plays out like a Rube Goldberg testing laboratory.  The second phase, “Implementation,” follows the man’s escape from the room, the application of his knowledge, and a completely unanticipated connection to the Escargot Man narrative.  The less said, the better for the eventual viewer.  The final portion of Symbol, “Future,” lasts seconds but suggests grand and transcendental implications to this otherwise absurdly comic effort.

The success of Symbol clearly rests with its writer, filmmaker and star.  Matsumoto, who is widely popular as one half of the comedy duo Downtown, shoulders responsibility for much of the film, his pajama-clad protagonist being the sole character onscreen for the balance of the film and very much the engine for Symbol‘s narrative progression.  The guys over at thesubstream.com wondered at TIFF 2009 which American comic might be capable of pulling off Matsumoto’s comedic effort and arrive at only one possibility – Andy Kaufman.  There is merit to the comparison, as Matsumoto’s performance displays Kaufman’s characteristic talent for playing bizarrely eccentric and surreal characters completely straight and for withholding punchlines to near breaking limits.  Symbol inspires many comparisons, probably due to critics trying to avoid revealing too much of its plot.  These descriptions usually follow the “X-meets-Y” mode and typically involve references to Vincenzo Natali’s Cube (1997), 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003), Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006) and The Wrestler (2008), and the work of Luis Buñuel, Takashi Miike, Kevin Smith, and Monty Python.  Naturally, these evocations are entirely accurate, yet do little to prepare a viewer for the unforeseeable trajectory of Symbol.  Matsumoto displays real skill in transitioning from fart jokes to metaphysical transcendence.  The parallel stories between the cherub room and the Mexican wrestler is key, as the colourful and highly textured natural environs of the luchador provides brief, but necessary, reprieves from the absurd and sterile realm of Matsumoto’s puzzle world.  Symbol is a deceptively rich film, both in terms of its visuals, its pace, and its ideas, and represents an odd demonstration of Matsumoto’s maturation as a filmmaker, improving on the promise shown in his debut feature, Big Man Japan (2007).

Symbol French PosterReviewing the selection of promotional art for Symbol, we’re most fond of this rarely circulated French poster.  It best captures Matsumoto’s comedic talents in the film and most clearly conveys Symbol‘s eccentric weirdness.  Also, the selected lettering is graphically interesting, with the 3-dimensional title evoking the architectural space of the white puzzle room.  A quick language change and some modest reformatting and Drafthouse would have an appealing cover to bear a spine number.  In fact, Symbol is exactly the kind of movie Drafthouse champions and would comfortably fit between Matsumoto’s upcoming R-100 and Quentin Dupieux’s bizarro dog-napping tale, Wrong (2012).

Credits:  Not much to say.  All the special features proposed here are based on comparable extras included on the Big Man Japan disc.  The back cover summary is partially derived from the Japanese disc release.  And let’s give another shout out to Eyesore Cinema for hooking a brother up!

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