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making a song and dance about Memories of Matsuko

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Memories Of Matsuko
cast: Miki Nakatani, Yusuke Iseya, Teruyuki Kagawa, and Mikako Ichikawa

director: Tetsuya Nakashima

130 minutes (15) 2007
widescreen ratio 16:9
Third Window DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Memories Of Matsuko (aka: Kiraware Matsuko no isshô) is the sort of film that only Asian cinema seems to come up with: half kitschy, half moving, trashy and yet poetic, you just won't this sort of eccentric product often on the Hollywood roster. A companion piece and successor to the same director's equally recommendable Kamikaze Girls, Memories Of Matsuko is the life story of a murdered recluse as discovered retrospectively by her nephew, charged by his disinterested father with cleaning up the dead woman's apartment. As he investigates his aunt's existence further he gradually discovers that life can have value after all, even when there seems none. The audience discovers how vivid personal fantasy can colour the most disagreeable world. Japanese cinema does a fine line in feminist tragedies, with an honourable line of such stretching back to Mizoguchi and beyond, films where the female centre of a movie suffers nobly within a male-centred culture. Matsuko Kawajiri is one from that same tradition, a sacrificial existence albeit filtered by a garish post modernistic pop culture. She's a female whose life when revealed, Citizen Kane-like, to the audience shows a character whose existence brings its own reward in our eyes, revealed with a nobility that only the audience ever sees completely.

Condescendingly dismissed, by one critic, as being like a "collaboration between Robert Bresson and Andy Warhol," a good deal of Memories Of Matsuko's richness lies in its heady counter-play between visual style and story. It frequently gives Matsuko's life meaning and context, by externalising her own fantasies in adversity through a riot of colours, staging and decor. Nakashima's innovative playful approach ranges from Sirkian opening credits through to bright colour and expressionist sets, Disneyesque animated birds and even musical production numbers. Fantastic and feminist in a manner familiar from Kamikaze Girls, as a 'fairytale tragedy' Memories Of Mastsuko echoes that earlier production in its sense of fun and irony. But this is darker parody than that, drawn at a much more ambitious level, with an undercurrent of emotion largely missing before. Whereas Kamikaze Girls is rooted in a rural world of daydreams, rococo ornament and girl gangs, Memories Of Matsuko takes place in an urban setting amidst yakuza, porn stars and pop, and with no happy ending for the main character.

Its energy and wit reflects something of the determination of Matsuko, a woman constantly looking for her ideal companion in life, only to be disappointed either through circumstance or bad judgement. But no sooner does she make another wrong choice, feeling thereafter that her life is over, than she reinvents herself and ploughs on into a new episode, as full of shallow optimism as the musical pastiche regularly surrounding her wayward progress. As the put upon Matsuko Kawajiri, actress Miki Nakatani is outstanding (and in fact she won a Japanese academy award). The memories of Matsuko are less the remembrances of others as much as the character's recollection of herself, particularly as often she seems to narrate her heartfelt story authoritatively from beyond the grave. From here her perspective invites judgement, and so her story becomes about not just how she was seen, but how then in turn she's seen others. It's a technique which considerably broadens the focus of the film, and allows for several excellent supporting roles. But even when others relate their experiences with her, she still dominates the movie, right up until her final appearance as an overweight, smelly frump, living in a garbage filled hovel, obsessed with a boy band.

At this point the film's erstwhile moral, about the importance of giving than receiving throughout life, is made plain. But, especially in the light of Matsuko's sacrifices during a film which frequently says one thing while implying another, we wonder how much this is to be taken without question. Some critics have criticised Nakatani dragging in the New Testament to make glib conclusion to all we have seen. Serious consolations of theology or not, Matsuko has clearly deserved better than she got. And there lays the film's achievement. Not in making the various memories of its central character unforgettable, but ensuring that our impression of Matsuko herself, who has suffered behind the veneer of cheerfulness so much, is by the end indelible.

Whether teacher, yakuza moll, sister, porn star, estranged sibling or murderess, Matsuko's experiences in life follow each other in colourful sequences, and it's a spiral that is slowly but inevitably stretching downwards. And if during her life there is an overarching regret, as part of her constant search for love and companionship, it is that she does not relate to her family as she might. Whether in pleasing her father - who comes to disown her - or being reconciled to the love of her sister, Matsuko's happiness is continually denied, at least until the end of the film where a transfiguration ensures she rests easier. It is easy to see that the distortion of her face at moments of crisis is self defining, a corrupted smile made aptly by the heroine when true joy is ever denied.

Memories Of Matsuko can be seen as both a deconstruction of the noble, self-sacrificing Japanese woman as well as restatement of serious themes through the filter of gone Hollywood and musical kitsch. Either way, there's a tension between what we are seeing, and what we understand, which gives the film interest. It's rare that one can recommend something to admirers alike of such diverse movies The Life Of Oharu, Amélie or the ironies of Douglas Sirk, but this is one such occasion.

On DVD the film comes relatively unadorned with just a 'making of' extra as well several trailers, not for Matsuko oddly, but including one for Kamikaze Girls. Another case of the UK market being short changed, one imagines, as elsewhere viewers can enjoy a two-disc presentation.

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