I remember precisely when my obsession with Hitoshi Matsumoto began. Back in the old days of the Alamo, one of my jobs was the curation of what we now call “the preshow.” I would assemble VHS tape montages of funny commercials, strange exercise videos, old trailers and dance instructional tapes I had gathered through seemingly ancient tape-trading circles. I would play these video oddities as short attention span theater in lieu of ads before movies.
Every now and again super-regular customers were inspired by the idea and would bring in tapes for me to play. Tony Salvaggio, a customer I’ve become friends with over the years, would always come for any film from Hong Kong, Thailand or Japan. If there was a rubber-suit monster or martial arts action on screen, Tony was in the audience. Tony had a friend in Japan who would record crazy TV shows and commercials onto VHS tapes and send them by post every couple of months. Tony brought to the theater one night in 2003 a VHS tape of his favorite sketches from the granddaddy of all Japanese variety shows, Downtown No Gaki No Tsukai Ya Arahende!! -- which translates to Downtown, I Am Not An Errand Boy!! or just Downtown as it is commonly known. Downtown has consistently been on the air since the early ‘80s and continues to this day.
I popped in Tony's tape to share with an unsuspecting audience, and my mind was shattered… forever. In 30 minutes we were assaulted by a rapid-fire barrage of elaborate and gleeful torture challenges and pranks, seemingly LSD-inspired re-imaginings of Japanese monsters and costumed heroes, and sketch comedy that went from bone dry to berserk in the blink of an eye. I had never seen anything like it…. apart from Jackass. Over the years since then I've been collecting every Matsumoto DVD I could find.
I have no authority to say this, but I firmly believe that Spike Jonze and the co-creators of Jackass were initially inspired by Matsumoto and Downtown. The absurd costumes, the gleeful nature with which they endure their physical punishment and the off-kilter comedic tone are spot on. There is no Jackass without Downtown 's masterminds Hitoshi Matsumoto and Masatoshi Hamada and their contemporary Beat Takeshi.
For all of its originality and inventiveness, Downtown falls into an ancient Japanese tradition of “Manzai” comedy which dates as far back as the Heian period (794 to 1185). Manzai is a comedy duo consisting of a “boke” or funny man/fool/masochist and a “tsukkomi” or straight-man/sadist. Much like the Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin dynamic, the humor of Manzai hinges on the personality differences, misunderstandings and both verbal and physical playfulness between the two opposites. In Downtown, Hitoshi Matsumoto plays the boke, and his long-time comedy partner Masatoshi Hamada plays the tsukkomi. They’ve been performing against each other in these roles on TV since 1982 and are still the dominant force of Japanese comedy.
Virtually nobody in the states knows Matsumoto and Hamada. A tiny sliver of obsessed internet explorers might have seen them in a fan-subtitled Japanese game-show clip on YouTube, but they remain very obscure here. There is no parallel for their celebrity status in Japan. Imagine an alternate reality where megastars on the level of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brad Pitt performed together on network television primetime three days a week for thirty years. That’s Matsumoto and Hamada in Japan.
What made these guys so massive is their groundbreaking approach to what was, quite frankly, fairly lowbrow comedy. They changed the face of Japanese comedy forever. Manzai is traditionally quite broad and slapstick with exaggerated performances and reactions the likes of which you see at Cirque Du Soleil. Downtown took a completely different approach. They mumbled, they carried on very mundane conversations, they didn’t ham up their performances at all. In fact they more or less ignored the audience. They were slow and deliberate and would patiently set up an elaborate and complex payoff joke. They were intelligent; they wove a love of contemporary pop culture and popular television and film into their skits. They were doing things that Japanese audiences had never seen. Downtown was completely off the rails and after some initial head-scratching, the entirety of Japan fell in love with their style.
When they first came on the scene, the most popular Manzai comedian of the day, Shinsuke Shimada, saw one of their shows and almost immediately called a press conference to announce his retirement. Stunned and humbled, he saw what they would soon become and knew he could not keep pace.
Matsumoto and Hamada continue to perform regularly on television several times a week. But since 2007, Matsumoto has also embarked on a new facet of his solo career, directing some of the most breathtakingly inventive feature comedy films the world has ever seen. Big Man Japan, Symbol, Saya Samurai and now his fourth film R100 are all masterpieces and, yes, all extremely different in tone. Hitoshi Matsumoto is one of the greatest comic minds to ever grace our planet. Were there an International Society of Comedy that held an annual awards banquet (there isn’t), I would be lobbying and writing petitions to give Hitoshi Matsumoto his well-deserved lifetime achievement award. I am excited to be presenting the complete cinematic works of Hitoshi Matsumoto in select cities and releasing his latest magnum opus R100 in theaters everywhere this winter. You are all about to bow in the presence of greatness.