Memories of Matsuko (2006) | Directed by Tetsuya Nakashima | Drama/Mystery | PG-13 | With Miki Natakani, Eita, Yūsuke Iseya, Asuka Kurosawa | Third Windows Film | Box Office: $9,578,449 | IMDb rating: 7.9/10
Memories of Matsuko was the first Japanese film I’d ever watched. Directed by Tetsuya Nakashima in 2000, the film opens with the nephew of the protagonist, Sho, who is greeted by his estranged father with the ashes of his recently deceased aunt, Matsuko. While combing through Matsuko’s belongings in the sordid apartment she left behind, Sho slowly unravels the mystery surrounding her murder, along with the ups and downs that eventually sank her life into a sea of suffering.
There were many moments during the film’s first fifteen minutes where I asked myself, “What am I watching?” Its eccentric stylistic approach bears resemblance to that of Nakashima’s Kamikaze Girls (2004) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), preferring bright, saturated colors and highly diffused lighting over more natural pigments, which makes the entire film susceptible to being mistaken for an episode of anime. Nakashima intentionally makes the acting farcical as if he’s directing a 1930s Charlie Chaplin comedy, with actors speaking at fast-forwarded speed and making dramatic facial expressions more at home on a Shakespearean stage. Much of its strangeness, which may deter some viewers, can be attributed to the conflicting extremes: the colors, the vaudeville-style buffoonery, and the musical numbers interweaved into its 130 minutes easily trick the audience into believing in an auspicious ending, but lying underneath the comedic atmosphere is a depressing story.
Everyone dreams, but only a handful of people see their dreams realized. The rest of us accept our fate, fall into ruin…”
This is a movie about life, the authentic, human life, not the happily-ever-afters. Our heroine, Matsuko, is among the “rest”, who starts out sanguine and full of anticipation towards the future, but is eventually defeated by reality. She tries to please her father, but fails as the unfavored child next to her sickly little sister; She steals her colleague’s money in an attempt to cover for her student’s thievery but gets fired by the school board; After running away from the family that offers her no love, her life begins its unceasing fall from grace, a procession of abusive relationships, prostitution, crime, and ostracism, yet she never stops yearning for that perfect love that will make her world colorful once again. At age 53, Matsuko becomes the overweight crazy lady that the audience sees in the first few minutes of the film, beaten to death by a group of children. What a funny way to die, you may remark. In fact that is precisely what Nakashima wanted to convey: her life was such a failure that even her death is ridiculed.
At this point the juxtaposition should be stark. Nakashima tells Matsuko’s tragedy in candy-colored hues, and dance and music, resulting in a cacophonous collision of bleakness and gaiety. In the end, bleak reality defeats Matsuko’s unfaltering dream for a good life, and she, just as the opening sentence of the film predicts, falls into ruin, like many before her.
Memories of Matsuko is relatable because almost everyone can find a piece of themselves in its protagonist. It exposes the inherent suffering aspect of life, which few films go so far as to embrace.