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“Symbol”: Are you there, God? It’s me, Hitoshi Matsumoto.

“Symbol”: Are you there, God? It’s me, Hitoshi Matsumoto. (photo)

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Reviewed at the 2010 New York Asian Film Festival.

Hitoshi Matsumoto, a famous Japanese comedian whose work outside of the two features he’s directed I have to confess to being completely unfamiliar with, has sported some truly horrendous big-screen haircuts.

In his impressively bizarre mockumentary “Big Man Japan,” Matsumoto played an ineffectual part time superhero whose droopy personality seemed to physically manifest itself in the sheets of long, scraggly hair closing in on his demoralized face. (When he transformed into a barrel-chested CG giant in order to fight monsters, his hair stood straight up à la Don King — must be all that electricity needed to spur the change.)

In his new film “Symbol,” which succeeds against all odds in being even stranger than “Big Man Japan,” he peers out from under the heavy fringe of a deeply silly-looking bowl cut, the roundness of which is matched by the gaping “O” of his mouth as he shrieks his frustration or terror. Finding himself inexplicably trapped in an all-white room mounted with little all-white switches (which we learn are actually the Lilliputian privates of giggling cherubim lurking in the walls), Matsumoto’s unnamed, pajama-clad protagonist is the unwilling participant in some sort of surreal one man metaphysical experiment.

06282010_symbol3.jpgWhenever he presses a switch — they’re all identical and unlabeled — something absurd takes place in the room. A bonsai tree is ejected from a hole in the wall. Sushi drops onto a plate. An apparent African tribesman sprints out of one corner and vanishes into the other.

A countdown clock signals the arrival of a giant pair of buttocks, which descend from the ceiling to pass gas upon the trapped man’s cowering form. And one of those switches opens a door — in the opposite wall, just a little too far away to get to before it closes back up.

Ah, yes. Did I mention there’s this whole other intercut storyline, set in Mexico, about lucha libre?

The wrestler thread, which is entirely in Spanish, seems to take place in an only slightly quirkier version of the real world that bears not apparent connection to the fellow in the room. Escargot Man, who’s a técnico, a good guy, prepares with his partner to battle a team of much younger and seemingly genuinely violent rudos with the ominous name “Devils of the North.” His parents are concerned, while his son insists, in the face of jeering classmates, on Escargot Man’s inevitable triumph. When the match actually begins, things don’t look good. Well, until…

06282010_symbol2.jpgI won’t give away the actual convergence of the two stories, which is staggeringly funny and, despite all the weirdness that’s preceded it, categorically unexpected. And goddamn, it should be — the first two thirds of the film are basically a sometimes tedious, slapstick-overstuffed set-up for that joke/revelation, and while the final act just piles on marvelous scenes of insanity, the overall feeling of “Symbol” is of a very, very long short.

I can’t begin to posit what the ending signifies — with the angel and devil imagery, there’s certainly a religious spin you could plant on it, but that seems, perversely, a little easy.

I prefer Mark Schilling’s proposed theory that the message is that “Actions have consequences, though our ability to foresee the latter is limited — if not nonexistent.” In that light, “Symbol” is a fantastic rebuke of/alternative to the “Babel”s of the film world. And that’s an idea I like very much.

“Symbol” does not yet have US distribution. It plays July 4th and 7th at the Walter Reade Theater in New York City.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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