Document type
13 September 2006
Format viewed

Memories of Matsuko

picture: Memories of Matsuko (2006)picture: Memories of Matsuko (2006)

Original title
Kiraware Matsuko no Issho
  • EITA
  • Teruyuki KAGAWA
  • Asuka KUROSAWA
  • Yusuke ISEYA
  • Mikako ICHIKAWA
  • Akira EMOTO
  • Shosuke TANIHARA
Running time
126 mins.

picture: Memories of Matsuko (2006)

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.

But the gloss and the feverish pacing can't hide the fact 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. This is a remarkably conservative - to the point of traditionalist - point of view to be taking in this day and age. Especially in a time when there are films like Yuki Tanada's Moon and Cherry out there doing more than their share to say the exact opposite. Memories of Matsuko places itself firmly in the tradition of suffering woman films as prolifically purveyed by directors like Mikio Naruse and the aforementioned Mizoguchi, a tradition that Shohei Imamura already tried to combat in the 1960s. But where those directors showed the misery as a consequence of women's subordinate roles in society (or in Imamura's, and Tanada's, case, women who simply disregarded these societal shackles and forge their own destinies), Nakashima does no such thing. Content to just dazzle with his visual wizardry, he indifferently accepts the traditionalist notions in his script without a second thought.

Memories of Matsuko certainly is dazzling. It is quite a ride, even at a two-hour plus running time, and it contains career-best performances from Nakatani, Yusuke 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. She is the only thing in the film that gives any counterweight to the dubious morals, but her character is so outrageously ballsy that any effect in this direction is undone by the fantastical dimensions of her character.

There is much to enjoy about Memories of Matsuko. But if I were a female moviegoer who had paid 1800 yen to be told that I need to know my place in this world, I would be mightily pissed off.


Amuse (Japan)

picture: DVD cover of 'Memories of Matsuko'

Region 2. No subtitles.

Amuse (Japan)

picture: DVD cover of 'Memories of Matsuko'

Special edition. Region 2. No subtitles.