Updated: Sep 2, 2020
Existential Japanese movie madness for the ages!
Director: Hitoshi Matsumoto
Cast: Hitoshi Matsumoto, David Quintero, Luis Accinelli, Carlos C. Torres, Adriana Fricke
Related films: Survive Style 5+, Kamikaze Girls, Taste of Tea
Japanese quirky cinema was at its height in the early 2000s. Wacky films were churned out like conveyor belt sushi, and the market could not be satisfied. The eccentricity bubble peaked around mid-2000 with highlights such as Survive Style 5+ (2004), The Taste of Tea (2004) and Memories of Matsuko (2006).
As the fad started to fade — in the aftermath of quirk so to speak — came director Matsumoto with his spectacular one-man-show. Singlehandedly he orchestrated the perfect swan song for the golden age of quirk. Not only did he prove himself to be a master of the genre, Symbol became a pinnacle of peculiarity.
The facts behind the symbol
Symbol is a Japanese comedy film released in 2009. It was directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto, who had a minor international breakthrough with the movie Big Man Japan in 2007. Symbol was not well-received in Japan, but did better overseas.
Contrary to the reception of the film, it never got an official international release. However, it got nominated for two prizes at the 4th Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong for Best Actor and Best Visual Effects.
The stories in Symbol
The opening scene is set in a desolate desert landscape. From afar a car is approaching on a dusty road. The scene brings to mind the first episode of Breaking Bad, or basically any film you can think of that was set in dry, southern American landscapes.
Before long we realize that the scenery is the backdrop for a Mexican household. The father of the family is a pro wrestler who never takes off his Mexican wrestler’s mask. This particular morning he is preparing for the fight of his life.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a Japanese man wakes up in a solitary room. Every surface in his cell is white, windowless and filled with countless tiny penises sticking out. Whenever the man touches a penis, an item is dropped into the room. Bizarre as this might sound, it is only the beginning.
The connection between the Japanese man and the Mexican wrestler is for you to discover. Suffice to say that the former is the epicenter of the story. The events in the tiny penis-room soon take epic proportions. The happenings are both hilarious and thought provoking.
Some incidents play with the concepts of time and space, which brings to mind certain sci-fi scenarios. The solitary man in a single room trying to make sense of his captivity makes for an atmosphere not unlike that of The Cube-series, and in particular Cube 2: Hypercube (2002).
The cutting between two narratives — interlaced with short anime-like sequences, aimed directly at the viewers — underlines Symbol’s playful approach to narrative build-up. At times, the 1960s Japanese new wave is brought to mind, or the new new wave that followed 20 years later. However, Matsumoto’s antics can never be mistaken for anything else than his own.
The playful tone and free-flowing creativity does indeed parallel films like Tokyo Drifter (1966) and Tampopo (1985). Taking cues from both the past and modern tendencies of quirk, Matsumoto placed himself shoulder to shoulder with innovative directors such as Tetsuya Nakashima, Katsuhito Ishii, Gen Sekiguchi and Takashi Miike.
A one-man production
Symbol is a unique film, not only in the context of Japanese cinema, but worldwide. Like The Cube films, also this story has a «dawning realization-factor» which is very compelling. The term «meta» is perhaps as cryptic as the narrative of the film. Still, Symbol is definitely constructed by building blocks of a cinematic meta-language.
It takes a true film-nerd to approach filmmaking in such a playful and daring manner. Not to mention the fact that Matsumoto took full control of most aspects of the production. In addition to writing the script and directing, he also stars as the pajama-clad protagonist. A director trapped in his own twisted fantasy is about as meta as can you get.
Compared to his debut — Big Man Japan (2007) — Matsumoto makes clever use of his increased budget. Symbol is arguably minimalist in its set pieces, but the effects are well made, the costumes are hilarious and the overall atmosphere compliments the story perfectly.
The camera and sound do not interfere with the narrative, which is to say it is very well done, considering the fact that the entire film is based on concepts of narrative innovation. The use of angles and sound is interesting, yet always in tune with the natural flow of the storytelling. The cinematography isn’t anything out of the ordinary per se, but it aids the narrative flow nicely and is on par with the best work from the 2000s wave of quirk.
Reading between the white walls
In all fairness, Symbol is a so-called «crazy comedy». It is not meant to be taken too seriously. At the same time there is something profound about the whole film which is not easily forgotten. Not many such comedies can claim to be thought provoking, but repeated views of Symbol do indeed evoke a certain cathartic effect.
It says something about the inventive nature of a film when its lighthearted story inevitably leads to philosophical pondering. Is Symbol a vision of purgatory? Are angels in need of educational institutions? And last but not least, how random is the cause and reaction for every little incident that happens in the entire universe? Are these hints confusing? Then take a deep breath, lean back and prepare for more.
Final verdict for Symbol
There is something special about minimal films that still stir up big emotions; films like The Cube, 12 Angry Men, The Man From Earth, 2LDK or Aragami. These films might be an acquired tasted for a selected few. However, for those of us who appreciate the challenge, it is an incredibly rewarding experience. If you are new to the concept, Symbol is as good a starting point as any.
In fact, Symbol is much more than an indie film for the selected few. It is an absolute gem for fans of Japanese quirk and science fiction alike. It is an intelligent comedy for the open-minded and an eye-opening revelation for the close-minded. All aspects of the filmmaking are well crafted, and the story takes you on a ride so unique, so out of this world, so wildly entertaining that you’ll never forget it.
The Japan Times: Symbol
Wikipedia: 4th Asian Film Awards
Windows on Worlds: Symbol (しんぼる, Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2009)
Symbol used to be available on Amazon Prime Video. Unfortunately, it is currently suspended due to licensing issues. Finding it elsewhere can be somewhat of a challenge. There are some second-hand and somewhat obscure DVD-releases to be found online. There is also a Japanese Blu-ray available at CDJapan and YesAsia. It comes without subtitles though, so fingers crossed that Santa will bring an international Blu-ray release of Symbol for our stockings this year.