R100: Toronto Review
A man obsessed with bondage gets more than he bargained for in cult director Hitoshi Matsumoto’s comic fantasy.
Japan's outlandish and totally original auteur Hitoshi Matsumoto can count on his cult following, a Columbia Pictures remake planned of his monster comedy Big Man Japan, and the endorsement of a retrospective at the Paris Cinematheque to rustle up an audience for R100, a film whose very surreal, disturbing first hour dissolves in disappointing B-movie nonsense at the end. Still it’s hard to remember a film about S&M as funny as this one, or one as beautifully and weirdly imagined. It was a much-followed Midnight Madness title at its Toronto bow and should whip up forgiving special interest audiences who enjoyed the director’s earlier work.
Once again the hero is an ordinary fellow leading a life of quiet desperation. Takafumi Katayama (played by Nao Omori, Sweet Little Lies), the regimented salesman in the mattress department of a big store, is secretly into bondage. He gets more than he bargains for when he signs a contract to be beaten by beautiful dominatrices for a year.
Adding another level to the film’s surreal comedy is the idea that Takafumi and his fetish obsession are part of a wacky movie directed by a wizened old man of 100, which is being screened by an official censorship committee. Not only do they not understand the film (and their perplexity is hilariously justified by all the inconsistencies in the plot), but the parade of whip-wielding ladies in black leather is too much for them to bear. Hence the title R100: they propose to rate the film as suitable for audiences of 100 and up.
Along the same meta-lines spoofing the film business are several interruptions in the story when characters think they feel an earthquake coming on. This is explained as being a nod to contemporary issues, apparently a requisite in Japanese films.
The film opens with an irresistible take-off on the dark lady thrillers of yore. In a well-heeled restaurant, Takafumi is meekly talking to a sultry vamp about Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, when she kicks him in the face Bruce Lee style. He follows her out on the street, where she drops her trenchcoat, revealing a costume that would make Victoria’s Secret blush, and kicks him down a flight of marble stairs. Strange comic-strip ripples radiate out from his puffed-up face as he gets off on the mistreatment.
Soon we find him in a dungeon-like building, ringing the bell on a door marked Bondage. A diabolical fellow behind the desk (Suzuki Matsuo) offers him something special: a year-long contract for surprise beatings when he least expects them-- a contract that cannot be canceled. Of course he signs up.
At first things go well. At the oddest moments, in the most ordinary places, a high-heeled “queen” dressed to the hilt appears out of nowhere and humiliates our hero. The deadpan scene in a quiet sushi bar is anthology-level filmmaking.
But then the viewer has to accommodate these laugh-out-loud moments with the sobering fact that Takafumi’s beloved wife is in a coma and he has to look after his little boy Arashi with only occasional help from grandpa. As the mix of straight drama with kinky madness gets wilder and wilder, the audience feels more and more uncomfortable about their guilty visual pleasures. It soon becomes apparent why Matsumoto felt the need to preface the film with a warning that it’s fictional and none of God’s creatures were hurt in the making.
It’s hard to guess how the story will conclude, and unfortunately the answer didn’t come to Matsumoto, either. The final reels introduce a new character, the Amazon-like CEO of the Bondage company, played by the blonde giant Lindsay Hayward, who is better known as the world’s tallest female wrestler. In her first screen appearance she succeeds in being outrageous enough, but her army of queens – who include the Saliva Queen (comedienne Naomi Watanabe in an unforgettable role) and the unbelievable Gobble Queen (stage actress Hairi Katagiri), the Whip Queen (Shinobu Terajima) and the Voice Queen (Mao Daichi) – are so infinitely more original and entertaining that the ending is one big let-down.
As the mild-mannered, sad-eyed hero who loves Beethoven, Nao Omori has come a long way since he portrayed Ichi the Killer for Takashi Miike. His calm, sad-eyed performance makes everything that happens even more surreal.
The main CGI effect, the protag’s fat-faced look of stupid ecstasy with radiating ripples, is cringe-worthy. It stands in weird contrast to the dreamlike atmosphere created by the camera, lighting and set design. Satoe Araki’s costumes are a hoot, all masterful variations on black leather bikinis with straps and laces.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Midnight Madness)
A Warner Bros. Pictures presentation of a Yoshimoto Kogyo Co. production in association with Yoshimoto Creative Agency, Phantom Film
Cast: Nao Omori, Mao Daichi, Shinobu Terajima, Eriko Sato, Ai Tominaga, Naomi Watanabe, Hairi Katagiri, Haruki Nishimura, Gin Maeda, Suzuki Matsuo, Atsuro Watabe, Lindsay Hayward
Director: Hitoshi Matsumoto
Screenwriter: Hitoshi Matsumoto
Producer: Akihiko Okamoto
Executive producer: Hiroshi Osaki
Director of photography: Kazushige Tanaka
Production designer: Etsuko Aikou
Costumes: Satoe Araki
Music: Hidekazu Sakamoto
Editor: Yoshitaka Honda
Sales: Free Stone Productions
No rating, 100 minutes.