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The Best Movies You've Never Seen: Hitoshi Matsumoto's surreal 'Symbol'


Famously idiosyncratic, Japanese comedy is characterised largely by overt physical comedy and self-deprecation, an unusual contrast with the straightforward humour of western tastes. Often merely mocked for its sheer absurdity, there is genuine artistry to Japanese comedy that goes far beyond the perception of Takeshi’s Castle and other such game shows seen as nonsensical fodder.

Some of the few Japanese comedies that have seeped their way into the Western consciousness include the works of Hitoshi Matsumoto, a filmmaker and popular comedian who makes up one-half of the well-known duo, Downtown. Helming the beloved comedy show Gaki No Tsukai with his Downtown partner, Masatoshi Hamada, Matsumoto went on to host the hilarious no-laughing reality TV show Documental as well as a whole host of peculiar feature films. 

Though his first foray into feature filmmaking came in the release of the satirical Kaiju movie Big Man Japan, turning heads for its surreal imagery, it was his second film in 2009s Symbol that would establish him as a genuine cinematic creative.

Wonderfully bizarre and totally unique, Matsumoto’s finest film is an escape room created from the mind of someone heavily influenced by LCD. Although abstractly told in several moving parts, the story largely follows the efforts of a man dressed in blue and pink polka-dot pyjamas who finds himself trapped in a giant white cube that’s scattered with bizarre objects, levers and mini-games that may or may not aid his escape. 

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All whilst this occurs, we follow a luchador and his family somewhere close to La Rumorosa in Mexico. Telling an explicitly generic story, the family act like any other, as the young boy struggles at school, the parents try to make ends meet and a plucky young wrestler tries to make it to the big time. Operating in tandem, it’s not until the end of the film that both plots collide to extraordinary extents. 

The meat of the story is contained within the partially CGI-constructed white vista of the square space, however, as the unnamed man, played by Matsumoto, attempts to navigate the space and reach absolution. 

Told largely without dialogue, Matsumoto’s film is predominantly a celebration of physical filmmaking, where terrific dynamic performance transcends language and becomes a universal comedic act. Much like the work of Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean, Matsumoto’s physical expressions and characteristics manage to retain interest throughout, in spite of a logical storyline and compelling dialogue. 

His story is, rather surprisingly, a religious one, that by the end calls into question the sheer absurdity of everyday life as well as whether anybody is indeed out there that controls such baffling events. The end result is on-the-nose to put it lightly, but you can’t help but feel like Matsumoto earned the right to such a climax, no matter its ultimate simplicity. The truth is, by the end of the 2009 gem you’re thrilled by the result, because just like any escape room, the thrill is in the steady solving, not in the foreseeable finale.

For fans of inane, subversive comedy, Hitoshi Matsumoto’s Symbol is an essential modern classic.

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