Symbol (しんぼる) – one thing which stands for another, sacrificing its own nature in service of something else. Hitoshi Matsumoto waxes philosophical in his follow up to Big Man Japan. Life, the universe, and everything converge in the seemingly unrelated tales of an unsuccessful Mexican luchador, and a confused Japanese man trapped in a surrealist nightmare. As expected, these two strands eventually meet, though not quite as one might expect.
The Mexican desert, a chain-smoking nun drives erratically towards a small house in which there lives a lucha libre wrestler by the name of Escargot Man (David Quintero) who has a big fight coming up but is worried because his opponent is much younger and stronger than he is.
Meanwhile, at an undisclosed location, a Japanese man wakes up in a pair of colourful polka dotted pyjamas inside an entirely white room. The man screams and rails but gets no reply. Eventually he notices a strangely shaped protrusion on the wall and taps it, at which point a host of tiny cherubs swarms around him before returning to the wall leaving only their tiny penises poking through. The man taps more penises and a host of objects begins to flood the room, each more useless than the last until the man begins to concoct a plan of escape.
Matsumoto lets his Mexican opening drift on indefinitely before abruptly cutting to the bright white walls of the mysterious room. The Mexican vistas are warm, wide, and open as the three generation family fret over the masked father’s destiny as a luchador with grandpa comforting the youngest who finds himself bullied over his dad’s profession while the mother is concerned by her husband’s nervous mood.
The mysterious room, by contrast, contains only a lone Japanese man even if just as strangely dressed. Matsumoto does not skimp on the surrealism as the man is bombarded with a series of totally useless accessories each time he presses one of the penis switches attached to the wall. Beginning with a toothbrush, the man is gifted a bonsai tree, hundreds of chopsticks, a sun lounger, toaster, and so on, each lacking any concrete purpose for his new life in the room save making him both more comfortable and also more frustrated. Irony rules as he receives a sushi lunch with no soy sauce only for a bottle to appear as soon as he’s finished, or he’s presented with the next-but-one volume of a manga he’s been reading but remains eternally unable to acquire the missing book. Eventually he finds a method of possible escape, conducts various trial and error attempts to make it work and then discovers it only leads to a second round gamesmanship with his invisible tormentor.
Unbeknownst to the man, his actions have consequences which begin with the improbable story of the Mexican wrestler and then flood around the world as he keeps tapping switches before literally ascending to a higher plane of existence. Random events are, perhaps, the result of a random button pusher in a far off land, trying and failing to escape his own captivity. Or then again, maybe he is us, endlessly tormented by unseen forces, desperately looking for a way out but left with no other mechanism than trial and error. We follow him through “learning” to “practice” and eventually to “future”, though what he learns through his strange evolution in an Escher-like world of inescapable repetition is debatable.
Strange, absurdist and defying interpretation, Symbol is a surreal escape game played on a universal scale. Matsumoto’s message is permanently unclear and possibly a long form joke, but its playfulness and somehow goodnatured attempt at cosmological exegesis is one which evokes a puzzled smile or exasperated laughter more than irritation at its appropriately obilque coda.
Currently streaming on Mubi.
Original trailer (dialogue free)