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  • 15
  • Comedy, Drama
  • 2006
  • 130 mins

Memories Of Matsuko

Memories Of Matsuko

Synopsis

Tetsuya Nakashima, the director of Kamikaze Girls, serves up the merriest variety of miserabilism in this post-modern melodrama of a fallen woman

About

Even if Memories Of Matsuko opens with a male voiceover and dizzyingly fractured images of different parts of Tokyo during a 2001 afternoon, the credit sequence that follows, in both its grandiose soundtrack and its outmoded golden typeface, establishes the film's genre as a 1950s-style melodrama.

Sure enough, this is a decades-long chronicle of female suffering that traces its heroine's life from her childhood in the 1950s through to her lonely death in the early noughties, while also moving the feminist themes of Kenji Mizoguchi or Mikio Naruse through the Technicolor dramatics of Douglas Sirk and on to an altogether more postmodern sensibility.

The male voice belongs to Shou (Eita), an aimless 20-year-old who has quit his band, been dumped by his girlfriend and, after concluding that "the future's hopeless", has lost himself in a blur of alcohol and pornography. When he is tasked with cleaning out the garbage-strewn apartment of a recently murdered aunt he never knew he had, Shou finds himself drawn to this kindred spirit and inspired by her irrepressible hope in the face of truly awful circumstances.

If Aunt Matsuko (Nakatani) died a lonely, battered bag lady still clinging to the possibility of future change, this merely reflects and amplifies the neglect, betrayal, abandonment and brutality that she had suffered throughout her life from those whose love she insistently sought.

As a little girl, she tries desperately to please a father (Emoto) who prefers her sickly sister (Ichikawa). As a young school teacher, her best (if somewhat deluded) intentions are rewarded with sexual abuse and ignominious dismissal. Her success as a "massage parlour girl" comes to an end as tastes and fashions shift. A series of treacherous, violent boyfriends eventually leads her to commit murder and the one decent man to have loved her (Arakawi) has moved on by the time her eight-year stint in prison is over.

There follows another abusive relationship with a yakuza (Iseya) - who, it turns out, made a mess of her life years before - yet more heartless rejection, and then decades of isolation, sorrow and madness. Her one last chance for a new life, offered by her old prison mate Megumi (Kurosawa), is cut off by Matsuko's senseless death.

As this endless cycle of woes befalls a protagonist who always seems to be sporting one or another sign of her physical abuse and mental anguish, Memories Of Matsuko ought to be an unremittingly depressing tale of a fallen woman, but instead, Nakashima deploys a panoply of cinematic trickery - digitally enhanced colours, trippy CGI backdrops, elaborate song-and-dance numbers, even Disney-like animated birds - to convert the dismal bleakness of Matsuko's life into an inventively kitsch visual and auditory feast.

The twee style, far from being inappropriate, perfectly captures the tension between the harsh reality of Matsuko's various situations, and the fairytale dreams that never fail her, even in her darkest hours. It is the representational analogue to her rosy worldview and sustaining imagination, so that even when "life was over" (a recurring line in the film), the heroine is always able to see something new worth living for.

Where all this Amélie -like whimsy makes Memories Of Matsuko very easy on the eye, after a while it also begins to cloy, as the realisation sets in that the film does not have enough real substance to underpin its fey stylings. Shou's struggle to make sense of his aunt's "meaningless" life through a bizarre appeal to New Testament theology comes across as an ill-conceived deus ex machina tactic in a film desperate to find a pat conclusion to its repetitive litany of miseries, while the final 20 or so minutes offer a treacly outpouring of sentiment that comes across as near unendurable in its self-indulgence.

Still, the film's excessive duration is mitigated by Nakatani's extraordinary performance as a woman whose appearance radically changes with the passing decades, but whose status always seems to be the same - that of someone always waiting, with equal hope and despair, for a reply in kind to the love that she has given so generously.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Gori , Akira Emoto, Mikako Ishikawa, Asuko Kurosawa, Miki Nakatani, Teruyuki Kagawa, Eita , YosiYosi Arakawa, Shinji Takeda
  • Director: Tetsuya Nakashima
  • Screen Writer: Tetsuya Nakashima
  • Writer (Book): Muneki Yamada
  • Producer: Hidemi Satami, Yuji Ishida
  • Photographer: Masakazu Ato
  • Composer: Gabriele Roberto

In a nutshell

Rarely has human abjection looked so good - but in the end, all the whimsy outstays its welcome in this quirkily shallow offering.

by Anton Bitel

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