Friday, November 14, 2008

REVIEW: Dainipponjin - Hitoshi Matsumoto (2007)

Reviewed by Matthew Hardstaff

Sometimes it’s hard for an entertainer to separate their on screen identity from their real life. Some are good at keeping their lives separate from their work, which usually entails keeping themselves out of the media, and for some it means sticking to smaller, less blockbuster type roles. Clive Owen spoke about not wanting to play James Bond because then that line would be broken and his entire life would be on screen every hour of everyday, fed to us by the paparazzi. And it wouldn’t just be his life, but that of everyone close to him. I still find it hard to watch Tom Cruise and not laugh (this incidentally worked in "Tropic Thunder", but not so much in "Lions for Lambs"). He can be a damn good actor, but I can’t get past those scientology youtube videos where he sounds like a crazy man. I can’t take the man seriously, and all because I know too much about him as a person. So I can imagine the anticipation and equal anxiety over Hitoshi Matsumoto’s debut film, "Dainipponjin".

Hitoshi Matsumoto is a comedic giant in Japan . He rose to prominence in the later half of the 1980’s as the funny man to Masatoshi Hamada’s straight man, with their manzai comedy act Downtown. Manzai is a two person comedy act which has more an emphasis on timing and delivery than content of the joke. Takeshi Kitano was himself a successful manzai comedian, but Downtown became one of the most successful and influential. Hitoshi’s identity has become filtered throughout Japanese culture. His love of Tetris and billiards, has led to televised competitions. He has been on television so much, and people have become so use to his comedic style, that if it changed how would people react? Before "Dainipponjin" was released, no one was allowed to see it until it opened nationally. It was kept under tight control, and for good reason. Hitoshi Matsumoto had a lot riding on the film. If people didn’t get it or enjoy it, maybe he wouldn’t get another shot (the film in fact opened number one at the box office, beating out Takeshi Kitano’s "Glory to the Filmmarker!").

"Dainipponjin" was not at all what I expected. After viewing numerous bizarre, funny, and outrageous online videos of Hitoshi Matsumoto, I thought I had a certain idea of what the film would entail. Hitoshi plays Daisato, a 3rd generation superhero who protects Japan from what he calls ‘baddies’. He travels to a power plant, where they jolt him with vast amounts of electricity, until he grows to the size of a sky scrapper. Then he descends into the city to do battle with whatever surreal monster is rampaging at that moment, whether it's a giant leg with the head of Riki Takeuchi, or a stretchy beast with a bad comb over and arms long enough to topple the tallest building. That pretty much sounds like what I was expecting from an outrageous satire on the super hero genre. But it’s not the film Hitoshi made. In fact it’s brilliantly far from it. Daisato spends most of his time alone, depressed, in his small, miserable home with his stray cat. And this is what Hitoshi decides to capture. A mockumentary about a man who hates his job, and who is looked down upon by citizens of the city, and even his own family. The film is quiet and subtle. Daisato has been beaten so much psychologically, that he’s a person struggling to be a man. We follow Daisato through his miserable, isolated existence, which is occasionally broken up with an insanely outlandish battle between Daisato and a giant creature. But that’s not the point. The point is Daisato as a man. "Dainipponjin" is not a laugh out loud comedy. But it’s smart, touching and subtly incredible.

Read more by Matthew Hardstaff at his blog.

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