unaware of PJ Man
There. I attempted haiku. It may not be a good one, but no shame in trying.
Symbol (2009) is 2001: a Space Odyssey on magic pills.
As I sit down and make ready to adequately report my findings in this singularly unique film I am confounded by a glaring roadblock. How can I describe this film without spoiling its many surprises?
Indeed, the whole film is one enigmatic surprise after another that only escalates in seemingly reckless absurdity until its inevitable point of conclusive befuddlement. It feels like a lost chapter of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It feels like a warped episode of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. It feels…unmistakably Japanese—despite the Mexican luchador subplot.
Hitoshi Matsumoto (Big Man Japan) directs, writes, and stars as a frustrated man in pajamas. This man wakes up in an empty white room with no doors and no windows. Also the walls are speckled with the protruding genitalia of thousands of mirthful cherubim.
A touch bewildered, the man experiments with these putty phalluses to discern their nature and to perhaps ascertain how he may exit this surreal riddle. When fomented via a light pressure from the index finger, the squishy penises burp angelical melodic notes of varying pitch and then the walls spew forth random objects. One phallus will produce a bonsai tree while another will produce bottled soy sauce or a scampering Zulu tribesman. The man tests different suggestive protuberances, all with equally bizarre and random results.
Meanwhile! …in Mexico, a portly underdog luchador gets a ride in a battered pickup truck. The driver: a chain-smoking nun with sunglasses…who is also his daughter. Sporadically the movie will return to the plot of the lucha libre fighter, Escargot Man, and his young son. But it is rarely accompanied by orienting information provided concerning these characters or how they might coincide with the outlying storyline of the man in the room upholstered in baby wang.
This is as far as I can lead you without spoiling the film for you. If you would care to read on you are most welcome, but be warned that it will undercut much of the surprise this film has, and surprise is one of this film’s greatest assets. If you want Symbol to stay pure, unsquelched spontaneity so you can watch it one day with an empty head then only read the next two paragraphs. Then stop.
I will say this: I really enjoyed the film quite a lot. It was alienating and didn’t make sense. My cup of tea. It was random and off the wall (literally) and I actually laughed out loud a lot during the movie. There is a visual and conceptual comic nonsense that I found smart, unique, and very funny. It’s a twisted sort of symbolism to be sure, but I would not hesitate to recommend it to anybody. For the people predisposed to love this sort of cultural oddity, I say pursue it. For those predisposed to despise films of this ilk, watch it anyway so the rest of us can watch your face contort in disgust. Where I found Big Man Japan only somewhat humorous as an intermittently enjoyable take on Japan’s kooky history with big monsters and big heroes, Symbol is much more polished and far more consistently clever and amusing. Big Man Japan was alright, but Symbol simply must be watched. The special effects (which are purely unique in both their style and execution) are also really great.
I went into this film with only as much as the vague trailer permitted me to know (which wasn’t much). Thirty minutes in I was still lost. An hour in I was hopeless to find any sense or reason in this jangled, yet enjoyable, Japanese novelty. In the homestretch, certain things, I admit, were illuminated, but they raised many new questions and these new questions were of a much heavier weight.
Obligatory SPOILER ALERT! Seriously. There are spoilers ahead. I could ruin the whole film for you. I’m in just the sort of strange mood where I just might do it too. And I hate spoilers. I blame the moon right now. I saw it driving back from Long Beach this evening. It hung low and orange in the polluted murk of what Southern Californians dub “the sky” and there were eerie streaks from dark, stretched clouds slicing into its corners like fork scrapes out of a Halloween cupcake. It was perfect werewolf weather, I tell you.
Symbol starts out as an endurance test for how much strange the protagonist (and the audience) can take. It transmogrifies into a fantastically weird journey of spiritual transcendence. The man uses the random objects to solve the puzzle and escape this incessantly circumcised room…only to get trapped in a sort of limbo space before he becomes the captive of yet another room, this time impossibly larger, darker, and the members more mature. At the first, I suspected him to be the subject of some peculiar alien science experiment, but things are far more interesting than that. Symbol, despite its insufferable whimsy, is really a unique theological and philosophical interpretation on why anything is anything. By the end of the film you will still have many questions, but you will definitely feel like you went somewhere and that all of the time and work was well worth it.
In the new room the adult angel penises exact invisible changes. Invisible, that is, to our main protagonist, but they produce shocking effects in the real world. The luchador, Escargot Man, emerges the victor due to a freak involuntary mutation (easily one of the weirdest jokes in movie history). A KISS knockoff rocker gets a spontaneous dose of combustible breath. An elephant trips as he jogs across the Serengeti. Apparently everything in the world happens because of a man fondling heavenly scrota. Makes ya think.
Soon the man has mastered the schlongs and propels himself eternally upward on what (from a safe distance) might appear to be a great rock wall. With each new John Thomas touched, new and increasingly profound things happen all over the world. It becomes an orgiastic ballet of climbing, fondling, and sparking grandeur. Ultimately this leads to a room with an embossed map of the world and the ultimate wall Willie. Is the Japanese gentleman in the polka-dot pajamas a god? Are there other rooms like this? Is he the only one? Who set up the experiment to make this man a god? What does all of this mean? Were we really just investing all that time with Escargot Man and his family for that one weird joke? I don’t know much, but the answer to the last question is yes and the payoff was totally worth it.
In a time where there seems to be a lack of originality in the world of film (especially comedy), it’s nice to know we still have people like Hitoshi Matsumoto around. He may cater to a specific taste, but God help me if I don’t feel catered to. Sometimes philosophy, art, theology, and the realm of Mexican wrestling need a healthy dose of humor. I’m still not entirely sure what it all was supposed to mean, but I laughed and had fun and I would definitely see it again…now when in that pesky US release coming?!
Even if you hate every second of Matsumoto’s lunacy you will have to admit that you will never see a film like this again.