Memories of Matsuko

Institute of Contemporary Arts
Tetsuya Nakashima/Japan 2006

When his girlfriend announces “Life with you is a terrible bore” and then leaves for Kazakhstan, Sho Kawajiri (Eita) is distraught. The Tokyo layabout considers possible options: suicide, booze, crime and sex. Told by his father (Teruyaki Kagawa) to clear his murdered aunt’s room in a run-down riverside house, he start to investigate a life which seems as meaningless as his own.
After spotting a pin-up of a pop idol and a photo of a pretty woman pulling a funny face among the debris, he meets a heavily tattooed neighbor who tells him his aunt was known as “Matsuko the outcast” (Miki Nakatani). A scratched message in her room reads “Please forgive me for being born” and a scarred former boyfriend has been making inquiries.

In a flashback Matsuko appears as a beautiful 23-year-old school teacher who loses her job after taking the blame for a theft committed by her student Ryu (Yusuke Iseya). Matsuko’s father is devoted to her sickly sister Kumi (Mikako Ichikawa), leaving the younger girl starved of affection. Only by pulling comic faces can she attract his attention.

Ejected from her home, Matsuko falls prey to a series of abusive men and is forced into prostitution, eventually killing a lover who gives her earnings to his new girlfriend. She seems settled with a kindly barber but the police catch up with her and she is jailed for murder. Inside, she learns hairdressing skills from a friendly inmate, Megumi (Asuka Kurasawa); but on her release she finds the barber has married.

After a fraught relationship with Ryu, who has become a violent gangster, Matsuko is again rejected and retreats to the waterside house. Only her distant adoration of a pop idol saves her from complete mental and physical breakdown. She attends gigs and writes fan letters but the lack of response leads her deeper into despair.

When her ex-prison friend, now a successful salon owner, sees the almost unrecognizable Matsuko in a clinic, she thrusts a business card into her hand. Matsuko is still clutching it when her body is recovered from the river bank. In a flashback we see children attacking and killing her at dusk after she advises them to go home. Sho realizes that his aunt’s habit of selflessness has given her life meaning and she is a role model for him. A montage of shots recalls the people whom Matsuko has loved and a final scene shows her restored to youthful beauty mounting a staircase leading to the sky. She finally embraces her waiting sister.

Nakashima’s dazzling biopic takes the clichéd image of the nobly self-sacrificing Japanese woman, and subjects it to interrogation. That he does so in a rapidly delivered mélange of startling CGI–enchanced shots in supersaturated color reprises the style of his earlier manga-based Kamikaze Girls. Here, the details of Matsuko’s tragic life are both more engaging and more complicated; realism in the scenes of domestic abuse is juxtaposed with Bob Fosse–style song-and-dance routines, such as “Happy Wednesday”, which accompanies shots of Matsuko welcoming a married lover to her home.

A soundtrack mix of religious anthems, Japanese rap and Hollywood show-stoppers accompanies a narrative constantly teetering on the absurd. Everything works at a highly-exaggerated level, whether Matsuko is conducting a choir on a boat floating on a misty stream or sending up fountains of blood when she stabs her unfaithful lover. A border of gaudy artificial blooms recalling David Lynch hick-town scenarios frames scene after scene, whilst cartoon Disney song-birds flutter over a path that suggests a yellow brick road. Even captions and dates have ironic rococo frames, whilst Matsuko’s face-pulling revelation occurs in a Fellini-esque fairground on the roof of a high-rise department store.

Characters are as surreal as the locations, from the tattooed punk neighbor to Matsuko’s first love-interest, a man so handsome the light catches his smile like a toothpaste ad. The reformed gangster has a face so scarred it resembles a trellis. The younger Matsuko (Kana Okunaya) is played to charicatured perfection by an Audrey Tatou look-a-like in red patent shoes.

If men find the selfless heroine too clinging, Nakashima’s portrait of modern Japan shows that Matsuko’s dreams of true love are rooted in fairy tale.

© 2008 Sheila Cornelius. All rights reserved.

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