I just finished watching MEMORIES OF MATSUKO on DVD earlier this morning (was prompted to do it after reading Grady Hendrix's gripes about the film's lack of US distribution).
And all I can say is...
I've heard many things about it in various sites and various film reviews. Universally positive reviews, but none could give me a clear picture of what the film is really like.
Some said that:
A) It's like CITIZEN KANE, where the protagonist dies at the beginning of the film, and someone else puts together the history of the protagonist's tragic life.
B) It's like MOULIN ROUGE and other big-budget musical extravaganza with its musical sequences.
C) It's like AMELIE with its bold visual strokes, blending of live-action and CG effects, and ridiculously vibrant and colourful tones.
I came to a conclusion after watching it myself that the film is really...
D) All the above.
Structured like CITIZEN KANE, but told like a sad and melancholic AMELIE (it's hyper-stylized) that's peppered with MOULIN ROUGE-ish musical numbers (and the songs have remained in my head the whole day). This is the kind of fusion that I myself would WANT to make as a filmmaker if I were given the money!!!!
Bored college student Sho (Eita) is approached by his estranged father one day with a white box of ashes from an aunt he never knew. The father spoke casually that the aunt was murdered, and wants Sho to clear up the apartment where she spent her final days at a mentally-deranged overweight bag woman, the place filled with trash and HIKARU GENJI memorabilia (yes, HIKARU GENJI, the 80s Japanese boy band Justin wrote about in May).
Still angsting over a recent relationship break-up with his girlfriend, Sho heads off for the mission, and ends up putting together the tragic life of his long-lost aunt (like the faceless reporter did in CITIZEN KANE), Matsuko, by talking to her acquaintances (which includes a timid punk rocker and a porn star/entrepreneur). Kou Shibasaki (last seen in the rather mediocre Japan Sinks) has a cameo role as Sho's girlfriend, her resemblance with lead actress Miki Nakatani is so remarkable that I was pretty confused at the beginning of the film! Look at the photos below, left is Miki Nakatani, right is Kou Shibasaki:
They look alike, no?
And Matsuko's life is an absolute tragedy. From her childhood, a little girl with a wonderful singing voice desperate for her father's affections as he favoured her sickly younger sister more. It would later influence her decision-making as an adult, her desperation to please anyone, loving one unconditionally, getting into one abusive relationship after another. It's really a melodrama, or rather, a parody of melodramas, never too sentimental, never too cynical, the film is kinda funny, since the supposedly darker moments of Matsuko's life (forced into prostitution, becoming a Triad moll, ending up in prison, constant domestic abuse etc.) are presented in Bob Fosse-like extravagance.
One moment you might feel affected and sad about her fate, but when you see her limping alone in the night, surrounded by colourful flowers and animated birds, while the moon has the face of the man she loves, you don't know whether to laugh or cry. Just like her 8 years in jail is done like a R & B music video, where she sings and keeps herself fit while everyone around her goes on in their (choreographed) pointless, mechanical day-to-day lives in prison.
It's really hard to describe this film. It's a tale of an insignificant woman desperate for love, willing to give her all and not expecting anything in return. So fearful of loneliness that she chooses physical pain with abusive lovers. Feminists might scoff at her sort of portrayal, but then, this isn't really a blanket portrayal of what all women are like, just a personal tale of a woman whose sad childhood played a role in how she lived the rest of her life. And like real life, it is filled with unsaid words and regret. Ultimately, even in death, her triumph comes in the form of having someone finally understanding her existence, and knowing that her life isn't as meaningless as everyone around her had condemned it to be.
If done in a normal manner, this would've been a tearjerking melodrama that might earn tears or snorts of derision, but because this film is so creative in its execution that I'm not just affected by the story, I'm really more awed by the filmmaking from director Tetsuya Nakashima and the other technical aspects of the film. Much have already been said about Miki Nakatani's tour de force acting, which had garnered her countless awards, so I don't think I need to dwell on that anymore. Just that I was really surprised to see how good she was, compared to her bland performance in TRAIN MAN (Densho Otoko).
My eyes didn't well up in tears when the credits started rolling, but I definitely found myself emotionally exhausted.
Ending of Memories of Matsuko, can't call it a spoiler since it doesn't really reveal anything that audiences don't know
The Matsuko Medley played during the end credits, you'll understand why I said the songs are stuck in my head