R100’s first, strikingly extended set piece functions almost like the entire film in miniature. There’s the sepia-tinged palette whose grays and browns scream dull respectability, the mousy department-store salesman, Takafumi Katayama (Nao Omori), who comes across like one more element of the dowdy production design, and an attractive cigarette-smoking woman in a trench coat whose razor-sharp center parting is but one sign of her severity. After Katayama mumbles a few self-conscious words about Beethoven, she delivers a sudden, sharp kick to his head, splashing his coffee against the adjacent window in deliberately showy fashion. After a brief pursuit, she casts off the trench coat in equally demonstrative style, the racy lingerie beneath apparently the perfect outfit for meting out an erotically charged beating to her stuffy pursuer. Her blows are met with obvious rapture, as his face responds by swelling up in such orgasmic joy that the very fabric of space cannot help but ripple in unison. From the very outset, it would appear that blatant contrasts, showboating flourishes, and random eruptions of violence are to be the order of the day.
As a subsequent visit to a besuited, pill-popping man makes clear, our innocuous protagonist has signed up for a bizarre bondage scheme, a one-year, no-termination contract whereby an endless stream of scantily clad dominatrixes will turn up at random to administer blissful humiliation. The pointedly one-dimensional setup thus established, the film gets down to mining the tidy divide between the world of bondage and that of the everyday to surreally comic effect. Katayama’s time is spent looking after his predictably angelic son, meekly trying to sell furniture at work, and dutifully visiting his comatose wife, a virtuous, anemic existence that couldn’t be more gleefully at odds with the thrills of leather and submission. As the erotic intrudes with increasingly frequency, director Hitoshi Matsumoto keeps things fresh by staging each new iteration with a different emphasis: An embarrassing intervention at a sushi restaurant is mined for maximum awkwardness, while a fountain-side clash is rendered in shimmering blue tones that evoke a whole other world of forbidden pleasure.
Hitoshi Matsumoto’s set pieces follow their own insane, unstoppable logic, with each new twist yielding its own outré surprises.
But there’s only so much mileage to be gotten out of a dominatrix beating the crap out of an innocent-seeming patsy, especially when each ribald permutation makes the same old point about how the sexually explicit and the everyday are hard to reconcile. The repetitive structure also makes certain sexist underpinnings harder to overlook: No matter how ass-kicking and emancipated each of these dominatrixes might seem, their each and every move necessarily revolves around a man. But it’s only this apparent impasse that actually reveals Matsumoto’s modus operandi: Ever crazier stylistic excess should never be encumbered by wider thematic consequence. In lieu of expanding the scope of the limited setup or teasing out its potentially thorny subtext, the filmmaker hurls gonzo idea after gonzo idea at the wall, with a strangely joyous disregard for whether they might stick.
This happily scattershot approach obviously comes with its ups and downs. The introduction of a film-within-a-film subplot, whereby a set of disgruntled producers complain about the scandalous content of the film they (and we) are seeing, feels superfluous, an almost adolescent attempt to self-reflexively big-up its own daring. The increasing reliance on bad taste can also get enervating at times, even as it does indeed liven up the continuing stream of dominatrix interventions. In the film’s more calculated moments, you get the feeling that Masumoto is all too concerned with playing to the midnight-screening gallery, where superficiality, shock value, and crassness are often virtues rather than stumbling blocks.
Yet if you’re willing to look past all thematic shallowness and calculated strangeness, there’s unlikely grace in Matsumoto’s endless flow of riotous ideas. Once liberated of the need for justification or significance, his set pieces follow their own insane, unstoppable logic, with each new twist yielding its own outré surprises, whether a disturbing talent for mimicry, an unlikely eulogy to a fallen comrade, or the sudden entrance of an English-speaking high priestess of pain. A extended encounter with a portly, vegetable puree-loving dominatrix named the Queen of Saliva would feel right at home in a John Waters movie, while the insatiable appetite of one of her colleagues serves as a gloriously preposterous means of tying up loose threads. And by the time one improbably final coupling gets the whole fabric of space rippling with total abandon, swimming in Matsumoto’s shallows has gained an equally reckless charm: Even if you scrape the bottom at times, the water’s often lovely.