First off, I confess I am a great fan of Hitoshi Matsumoto. He is one half of the prolific Japanese comedy team “DownTown” and is easily one of the most successful and funny comedians on Japanese television.
Matsumoto, along with partner Hamada Masatoshi created the duo DownTown in 1983 and since then have been the sources of a very unique and raucous brand of comedy. One of their primary characteristics is their thick Osaka dialect which to Tokyo-ites sounds both brutish and quaint, conjuring images of old school yakuza and the culturally invaluable Kansai region (which includes Kyoto, for example).
The film Dai-Nipponjin represents Matsumoto’s debut as director of a full-blown theatrical film. On his side, of course, are both his already significant influence in the Japanese media industry and a truly massive nation-wide fan base. These two factors by themselves can easily become a recipe for disaster if such an influential, financially backed and popular director has at core nothing truly creative to offer audiences. But with Dai-Nipponjin, Matsumoto clearly delivers something not only truly unique and entertaining, but also something whose meaning can be unpacked, contemplated and appreciated.
Matsumoto’s comedy team “DownTown” has been the source of a number of groundbreaking themes. Perhaps one of the most entertaining has been their “Punishment Game” (Batsu Gamu) in which the show’s core members must endure a 24-hour period in a clever, ridiculous environment without laughing. Every laugh receives a “punishment” which involves something painful. YouTube is full of their folly. Here’s a snippet of one such game in which the punishment is a blow-dart needle to the buttocks. (Its untranslated, but you’ll quickly get the picture! ha.)
From it’s earliest days, one of the more long-running and predominant theme of skits from “DownTown” has involved what can rightly be called the “deconstruction of super heroes”. Since the inception of his comedic debut nearly 15 years ago, Matsumoto and his team have thoroughly enjoyed depicting their rendition of the off moments in a super hero’s life. On screen and in anime, of course, such heroes seem to have no personal defect nor is there any hint of dysfunction amongst the hero team. But even in the early stages of Matsumoto’s world, we are privy to the developmental and often dysfunctional aspects of these greater-than-thou personalities. Although many popularly beloved characters fell victim to this deconstruction, one of the longest-lived DownTown skits involved the “5 Rangers”, a wholly transparent parody of the once wildly popular and colorful “Power Rangers”. Here’s a very weird snippet for you, portraying the period in which the “5 Rangers” were trying to figure what costumes they would wear as superheroes. The villain is unwilling to take them seriously until they get their act together which from the looks of it won’t be anytime soon.
OKAY, so enough distractions. But what is both important and helpful to realize when approaching Dai-Nipponjin is that this EXACT theme of this film, namely “super hero deconstruction” is something Matsumoto has been exploring and honing for nearly 15 years. Of course the brief comedic sketches can only be goofy and superficial. But we can now say, without a doubt, that over those many years, Matsumoto has given this specific topic a great deal of thought, not only in terms of comedy, but also in terms of impressively deeper currents pitting traditional sentiments against their contemporary, often foreign-borne rivals.
Matsumoto plays Masaru Daisato, the last in a long line of traditional Japanese super heroes. In times of national need, he and his ancestors had been called upon to battle various strange kaijuu, those enormous monsters which step on cars and knock over sky scrapers in so many early Japanese films. Whereas his ancestors seemed to live in a Golden Era for the Dai-Nipponjin, in which they were lauded with national praise and celebration, Masaru’s personal life is testimony to the fact that times and national interest have changed. Matsumoto’s depiction of the nearly anonymous, run-down and all-too-human Masaru is truly striking and conveys a real sense of how pitiful a character he is. This is undoubtedly Matsumoto’s Opus Magnum in terms of showing the less-than-glamorous private life of a traditional hero.