TV clown draws bigscreen respect

Japanese comic targets overseas audience

Hitoshi Matsumoto, the longtime king of television comedy in Japan as the “dumber” half of the comic duo Downtown, has also become an acclaimed helmer overseas.

His debut pic, laffer “Big Man Japan,” was selected for the Directors’ Fortnight section at Cannes in 2007, and his two subsequent films — “Symbol” (2009) and “Scabbard Samurai” (2010), have also been screened widely abroad, if not exactly burning down the box office at home.

In March, the Cinematheque Francaise presented all three of Matsumoto’s pics in Paris in a special section — the sort of honor previously bestowed on such famed Japanese helmers as Akira Kurosawa and Shohei Imamura. “I feel like a second-year pro baseball player invited to the All-Star game,” Matsumoto quipped to the press.

What’s in the works now? During this year’s Okinawa Movie Festival (March 24-31), an event organized by Matsumoto’s agency, Yoshimoto Kogyo, Matsumoto flew down to Okinawa to meet with the media, included a one-on-one with Variety, but had little concrete to say about his new pic. “We’ve only had one or two meetings so far,” he said. “This time, I want take it slow. I really don’t know anything yet, including the release date.”

As with all Matsumoto pics, the idea for the new film will come from his own fertile brain, not the manga, games or bestselling novels that are the usual starting points for commercial pics in the Japanese biz.

“In Japan hardly any films come from original ideas,” Matsumoto explains. “And the ones that do don’t become hits. I’m one of the few who’s allowed to do this sort of thing, so if I don’t do it, who will? I feel a kind a duty — well ‘duty’ sounds big-headed.”

Also, unlike the many helmers and producers in Japan who think of domestic auds first and foremost, with the rest of the world an afterthought, Matsumoto is focusing on the world. “When I made ‘Big Man Japan’ I thought it would only be seen by Japanese,” he says. “Then it was screened at Cannes, and was seen by a lot of foreign people. So I thought I should make more movies that could be shown abroad.”

His next film, “Symbol,” had a story that anyone could understand, even if they didn’t speak Japanese. “I aimed it straight at foreign audiences,” he says. “It was a kind of experiment for me.”

However, Matsumoto has no intention of following in the footsteps of Takeshi Kitano, another Japanese TV comic-cum-helmer with a high international profile, who has earned acclaim with serious pics.

“That probably wouldn’t work for me,” Matsumoto explains. “I’ve got my own way of doing things — and comedy has got to be in whatever I do.”

At the same time, Matsumoto is willing to try various genres, as long as he can make the pic completely his own. “Basically, I really want to surprise and astonish the audience,” he says. “If I thought that fans would be surprised if Matsumoto did a yakuza movie, I’d do it. I want to betray their expectations.”

Already Matsumoto is working over a curveball for his new film. “The title I’m thinking of is ‘R-80,’ “Matsumoto quipped. “People under 80 won’t be allowed to watch it. The theme is breaking down (stereotypes). I’m thinking now of how to show that.”

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