Memories of Matsuko
- Original title
- Kiraware Matsuko no Issho
- Japanese title
- Running time
- 126 minutes
- 13 September 2006
by Tom Mes
Melodrama relies on one basic element: tragedy. Few films in the genre, however, ever go so far as to really embrace the inherent suffering. If they are happy to have their audience shed hankies, they rarely if ever go so far as to repulse them with the more realistic connotations of divorce, ostracism, or the loss of a loved one.
This is exactly where Memories of Matsuko sets itself apart. Its titular suffering heroine (a brilliant, eye-opening performance by Nakatani) does exactly that: she suffers, no mistake about it. Since childhood she has been marked with a desire to please her stern father (Emoto), who doted on Matsuko's sickly sister Kumi (Ichikawa) but rarely even broke a smile for Matsuko herself. Gifted with looks and a beautiful singing voice, she grows into a popular schoolteacher, courted by a handsome colleague (Fudoh's Tanihara), but tragedy strikes when one of her pupils is accused of theft during a school trip. When the culprit, a gruff wannabe-delinquent named Ryu, flat out denies the accusations, Matsuko's obsessive desire to please rears its head and she takes the blame in order to suss the incident. But instead of blowing over, things get worse. Matsuko 'borrows' from a colleague's purse in order to reimburse the victim, but is found out. Now faced with a double accusation, she is given her marching orders.
Things go downhill from there. Matsuko's life story becomes an uninterrupted fall from grace and favour, a procession of abusive boyfriends, banishment from her family, jealousies, prostitution, and crime. Throughout, she keeps yearning for that one perfect love that will make everything all right, even as the bad deeds it is meant to offset pile up and the prospect seems increasingly unlikely. She ends up as the overweight bag lady that we meet in the film's first few minutes, beaten to death on a riverbank.
The story is unravelled by her nephew Sho (Eita, previously seen in Toshiaki Toyoda's 9 Souls and Katsuyuki Motohiro's Summer Time Machine Blues), who is sent by his father (the increasingly ubiquitous Kagawa) to clear out the rickety apartment where Matsuko spent her final days surrounded by garbage and pop star memorabilia. Director Nakashima, of Kamikaze Girls fame, tells it in golden hues, employing an arsenal of technical trickery to express Matsuko's unfaltering belief in her ability to one day find the perfect man, taking elaborate flights of fancy at regular intervals. Musical numbers accompany every stage in the heroine's tragic life. The result is a jawdropping collision of unrelenting grimness (Nakatani spends much of the running time sporting a black eye or a limp) and a fantastical, candy-coloured lightness that makes Memories of Matsuko play like a fusion of Kenji Mizoguchi's The Life of Oharu and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain. Nakashima deserves kudos for daring to juggle such extremes and pulling it off.
Memories of Matsuko is quite a ride, even at a two-hour plus running time, and contains a career-best performance from Nakatani, plus excellent turns byYusuke Iseya and A Snake of June's Asuka Kurosawa, who nearly steals the film as an unapologetically sexy convict / porn star / business woman, the only person who never gave up on Matsuko.
Beyond the gloss, the song-and-dance numbers, and the feverish pacing, however, one can't help but feel that Memories of Matsuko is rather dodgy in the moral sense. The message seems to be that a woman cannot be happy unless she finds a man, even if he turns out to be an abusive monster. And without a man, she will end up a crazed, fat, limping, lonely old hag. Granted, Nakashima presents Matsuko's descent in over-the-top terms, both narratively and stylistically, which renders the entire exercise fairly inoffensive and coats it over with thick layer of irony. One wonders, however, to what end the irony serves, other than a Tarantino-esque meta-narrative on Japan's long tradition of 'suffering woman' films, a tradition that has little relevance in the day and age of Yuki Tanada's far more modestly styled but much more profound Moon and Cherry. Nakashima instead seems content to just dazzle with his visual wizardry, doing little with his protagonist's plight but add a perfunctory ironic twist. The result is a film that certainly dazzles, but which is ultimately quite hollow, if not a little dodgy.