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Memories of Matsuko
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by Jay Seaver

"A beautifully strange way to tell a sad story."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: I don't want to describe "Memories of Matsuko" glibly. It would be so easy to point out the huge difference between the story's subject matter and the methods used to tell the story in a way that sounds like I'm being sarcastic, comes across as trying to show off how sophisticated I am because I love something off the beaten path, or simply makes it sound distasteful. It's too good a movie for that. Lord knows I was put off by the premise - a brightly colored musical about the life of a lonely woman found murdered in a field - until I recognized the director.

That director is Tetsuya Nakashima, whose previous film Kamikaze Girls was a particular favorite of mine when it played two years ago, and the style of the two films are very similar: Bright colors, fanciful compositions, larger-than-life personalities and a great deal of jumping back and forth in time. While many might choose to tone things down for the darker subject matter of Matsuko, he instead adds an extra layer of exuberance, with elaborately staged musical numbers. It works - with the high points of the title character's life so beautiful, the lows become even more ghastly.

The story starts with Sho Kawajiri ("Eita") waking up to find his father Norio (Teruyuki Kagawa) in his apartment, idly looking through his porn. The two haven't spoken since Sho came to Tokyo to try to make it as a musician two years ago, and it turns out that this isn't a first for Norio: He had an older sister, Matsuko (Miki Nakatani), who left home thirty years earlier (Sho didn't know she existed) and has just been found murdered. Norio is bringing her ashes home, but asks Sho to clean out her apartment. It's filthy, but soon begins to offer up tantalizing glimpses of Matsuko's history: There's a picture of her making a funny face as a child and a poster of a recent boy band. A garishly tattooed but gregarious neighbor mentions a scarred man who had been lurking about recently, and the lead detective mentions that she was a popular teacher thirty years ago. From there, Sho starts to piece together the story of her life.

It's a life of extremes, and several of the episodes have a similar feel: They start with Matsuko happy, and singing, maybe in love, only to have things collapse into physical abuse, betrayal, and disappointment. But watch Miki Nakatani's performance closely; there's more going on than her hairstyle and costumes changing with the times; as much as Matsuko seems resilient and able to bounce back from her latest disaster, the bounce is a little less far, and a little less genuine, each time. Some of what Nakatani does is very broad comedy and some is heartbreaking, and it's quite impressive to watch what she does turn on a dime and turn back again, without making the character seem schizophrenic or disjointed. And she can sing, too.

The musical numbers are some of the best I've seen in a film in some time, really cinematic rather than just transplanted from the stage: Not only are scenes not confined to one rather static shot, but Nakashima cuts between performance and conversation in ways that make both stronger. The musical styles advance with the times, but not so much that they don't work as a common thread, and the emotion comes across even when relying on subtitles and the odd English phrase that gets thrown in.

Unlike recent American musical numbers, the songs in Memories of Matsuko can happen anywhere, as opposed to being confined to a stage or dream. This prepares the audience to give the filmmaker a little room to not be quite so literal in other areas, such as the flashbacks, which are frequently narrated by Matsuko and contain information that the person relating them probably couldn't convey to Sho. Some are also highly stylized, such as the inside of the prison or the film noir style of Matsuko's time as a yakuza's girlfriend. All are extremely well-edited; not only does the occasional flashback within another not cause confusion for the audience, but Nakashima occasionally pulls off the neat trick of revisiting the same moment from a different perspective without the audience quite realizing that the film was heading in that direction.

Miki Nakatini's work as Matsuko is, as mentioned, fantastic (winning her a Japanese Academy Award), but she's got an excellent cast around her that do good work in small doses due to the episodic nature of the film. Eita doesn't have many scenes with her, of course, but he does a good job as our guide, sometimes incredulous, sometimes walking a line between angry and disappointed at how his father kept her a secret. Teruyuki Kagawa plays middle-aged Norio as regretting his treatment of Matsuko, even though he still can't overtly express more than disapproval. Akira Emoto and Mikako Ichikawa play Matsuko's father and sickly sister; there's a complicated mix of love, jealousy, and reserve between them.

Yusuke Iseya is notable as Ryu, one of the few characters who recur several times in Matsuko's life from her time as a teacher all the way to her death. Asuka Kurosawa's performance as Megumi Sawamura, a friend Matsuko met in prison, winds up surprisingly touching, especially given how her early scenes with Eita are played. I kid you not, she's introduced with this bit of narration from Sho: "I fell asleep watching porn and dreamt I was kidnapped by a porn star. No, wait - that actually happened." Her initial actions with Eita are hilariously over-the-top and off-putting, but by the end the audience is hard-pressed to find a better person in the movie.

There's a moral to the film, of course, about the worth of one's life being tied less to accomplishments than how much of yourself you give to others, but it's a somewhat bitter pill to swallow. But the audience does; even at a festival more likely to draw fans of action and horror, this ended without a dry eye in the house.

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originally posted: 07/17/07 23:10:11
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2007 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/05/11 Emily Truly amazing in every sense. 5 stars
11/29/09 Pat Evans a totally unexpected treat 5 stars
5/09/08 Robert Bliss Moved me to tears. 5 stars
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Directed by
  Tetsuya Nakashima

Written by
  Tetsuya Nakashima

  Miki Nakatani
  Yusuke Iseya
  Asuka Kurosawa
  Mikako Ichikawa

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