12 October 2008

Memories of Matsuko (嫌われ松子の一生, 2006)

Tetsuya Nakashima's Memories of Matsuko (Kiraware Matsuko no Isshou, 2006) bursts onto the screen like a modern day Busby Berkeley spectacular. However, unlike a Berkeley musical, which usually has a superficial plot with a dash or two of light romance, Memories of Matsuko tells the tragic life story of a woman who has been brutally murdered in a field near her squalid apartment. While most musicals try to 'normalize' their musical numbers by having their main characters be singers or dancers, the musical numbers in Memories of Matsuko products of the imagination of Matsuko or her nephew Shou. Often they provide the same kind of function as a monologue: giving us access to the subjective mind of the central protagonist.

Before we learn about the tragic life of Matsuko, we are first introduced to the chaotic life of Shou Kawajiri whose life has been on a downward spiral since breaking up with his girlfriend. His father visits him with the ashes of his deceased aunt, Matsuko Kawajiri, and asks Shou to help clean up Matsuko's apartment. From there, the story unfolds using a similar narrative technique as Orson Welles's Citizen Kane with Shou piecing together the sordid tale of his aunt's life through the stories told to him by people that knew her such as her punster next-door neighbour, an elegant porn star, a yazuka who was her former lover and one of a long line of men who abused her.

Although the flashbacks are told by others, the narrative voice changes to that of Matsuko, so that we feel her presence telling her life's story throughout the film. She undergoes several tranformations during the film from an apparently motherless young girl desperate to please her father to being a school teacher, a convict, a hair stylist, the devoted girlfriend of an abusive yazuka, and eventually her end as a mentally disturbed bag lady.

The dramatically depressing reality of Matsuko's life is counterbalanced by her colourfully imaginative internal life represented by the musical numbers. Nakayama's dynamic editing and use of CGI was honed during his time as a director of commercials and contributed to the financial and critical success of Kamikaze Girls (Shimotsuma monogatari/下妻物語) in 2004. Both films are adaptations of novels by women and feature women as main protagonists. Muneki Yamada (山田宗樹)'s original novel was also adapted into a television drama on TBS in the autumn of 2006 – with a much tamer, romanticized representation of Matsuko's life.

This film has been slammed by many respected film critics, despite the fact that the film evokes for them memories of film classics like Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (1957), Citizen Kane (1941), not to mention the works of film legends like Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse, and Douglas Sirk. The main complaint seems to be that the films visual and emotional excesses, particularly in the drawn out ending making the film come off rather cloying instead of heartfelt. This is perhaps true if the film is compared to the kind of dramas made in the States and Europe, however I think that in the context of contemporary Japanese drama traditions, which seem to revel in the outlandish and overwrought, the ending does not seem out of place. I don't think that this film is for everyone – Chris MacGee at Toronto Jfilm Pow-wow found it disturbing – but certainly is fascinating and thought-provoking.