“Memories of Matsuko” places itself firmly in the well-worn tradition of suffering woman films already purveyed by directors like Mikio Naruse, but Tetsuya Nakashima dares to set it apart. He’s just not content with having his audience shed their tears, he goes so far as to really embrace the inherent suffering and repulse them with the more realistic connotations of sibling rivalry, domestic abuse, ostracism, or the loss of a loved one.
The movie starts with Sho Kawajiri (Eita), an failed musician , waking up to find his father in his filthy apartment, asking him to clean out the remaining belongings of his recently murdered aunt Matsuko (Miki Nakatini). There begins a tantalizing investigation of Matsuko’s life, which is chocked full of great ordeals. From a young age, she always had to fight for her father’s love, whose affection and attention were totally fixated on her bedridden and frail sister. She then had a promising career as a school teacher, but she got sacked after one of her students committed a theft, and she unwisely took the blame for him. And so we follow her on a downward spiral through life, a series of bad choices and sheer bad luck. But what’s enticing about her ravaged life is that she always manages to keep a positive attitude, to pick herself up and strike forward, head held high. Nakashima was absolutely unrelenting in telling the tragic life of Matsuko. He’s honest in showing that part of Matsuko’s tragedy is down to her poor decisions. He repulses us with sordid tales of an emotionally neglected woman who would sick to her abuse boyfriends no matter what. But he’s also sympathetic with Matsuko by pointing out that she’s an unfortunate soul down on her luck.
The dramatically depressing reality of Matsuko’s life is counterbalanced by her colourfully imaginative internal life represented by the musical numbers. The film could easily have been the most harrowing sort of kitchen sink drama, but director Nakashima sets of the beaten path by fusing it with Technicolor whimsy and turning it into a bright neon fairytale tragicomedy, where the unexpected is rife. It’s Amelie, but in the real world. The musical numbers are really an integral part of the film, really cinematic rather than just transplanted from the stage. Some are also highly stylized, such as a trip to a theme park with Matsuko and her father, where she finally won his heart and pride, a happy day for Matsuko at a supermarket or the inside of the prison.
While the narrative and art direction are top-notch, what really carries the film is the acting of Miki Nakatani. There’s more going on than her hairstyles and costumes changing with different episodes of her life. She nails off the fragility and resilience of Matsuko perfectly: she’s able to bounce back from her disaster, but the bounce is a little less high and less genuine, each time. Nakatani has both the comedy and drama chops to turn on a dime and turn off again, without making the character seems schizophrenic or disjointed. Memories of Matsuko is an epic in about every way: a delight of visual insanity, an offbeat kitchen sink drama and an engaging musical. Clocking in at 2 hours 10 minutes, it’s a tad overlong, and it does sag towards the end, but it also manages to capture all the emotions thanks a bumpy ride through thirty bittersweet years of Matsuko’s life.