I didn't do a Movies of 2006 this year. Bet'cha noticed. Yeah, I was waiting until I saw some of the movies that I had been unable to see prior to the New Year. Still, I'm not doing a Best of Movies list. It's not important and it's not like anyone cares enough to search out and see any of the (mostly) obscure films I'd put on the list anyhow. I saw some doozies this year. Yes I did.
The film I'm speaking of is the latest film by Tetsuya Nakashima, the director of "Shimotsuma Monogatari" (Direct translation: "Shimotsuma Story" but best known in the USA as "Kamikaze Girls"). The new film is entitled "Memories of Matsuko" and it's a film that had me experience a multitude of emotions in it's 2 hour and 10 munite running time. Stylistically, it's a clone of "Shimotsuma Monogatari" in that it has the same garish, candy colored view of it's world. It even shares a few compositionally similar scenes within it. Thematically, however, it's the antithesis of "Shimotsuma Monogatari". While the earlier film cheerfully sang an ode to individuality, this new film belies it's sunny visuals with a story that is immersed in sadness, desperation and hopelessness. Imagine, if you will, if someone took "Amilie" and forced her to be the lead character in "Dancer in the Dark" and you pretty much have the feel of this film.
After a prologue that speaks of dreams fulfilled and shattered, we find that the title character Matsuko has already died. We know this because her brother has arrived, along with her creamted remains, at the apartment of his son, Sho; a young, frustrated musician who seems to be living in a cluttered squallor. Sho's father tells him of the Aunt he never knew he had and tells him, "Her life was meaningless". He tells his son to go to Matsuko's apartment and get things in order. Upon arrival, he's faced with a apartment that consists of one room filled with garbage and filth.
From there, the film splits into multiple narratives. We see Matsuko's life through the eyes of Sho, people that Sho encounters that knew Matsuko and even long stretches of storyline that's narrated by Matsuko herself. Her life is one of jealousy, betrayal and brutality as she goes from teacher to singer to massuse and prostitute; then to murderer to prisioner to hairdresser and, finally, recluse. All the while, she suffers at the hands of every man in her life; from a neglectful father to several suitors who physically abuse and humiliate her. The film is tough going, emotionally, but the sugar to sweeten that bitter medicine are the striking visuals and outstanding musical numbers.... Did I mention that? Yeah, it's a musical. A pretty danm good one, too. I found myself thinking on several occasions during the running time about how wonderful this would be on stage. It would be a dazzler.
The film even provides cameos from some of the better J-pop divas to sing in the production numbers. Bonnie Pink and Ai sing the most memorable tunes and there're even cameos by Anna Tsuchiya as a prisoner and Kimura Kaela singing "Trill Trill Recur" (from her album "Circle") in the very first scene. Yes, you could say the movie had me at Kaela. Curiously, the movie also has a cameo by Porn star Sola Aoi as... well... a school girl turned porn star. Bizarre to see her in a legitimate film, but I suppose she's making the leap over. Good luck to her.
The film is, frankly, a mess. It's a glorious mess, however. The film tries it's hand at comedy several times with varying degrees of success, considering the subject matter of the film. After the first half hour, though, the director stops trying so hard and lets any humor there is come from the internal workings of the story. There're always comical trappings to even the most tragic events and when the laughs do come in those circumstances, they come honestly. The film is at it's best when it just focuses on Miki Nakatani as Mitsuko and lets her take us with her. Ms. Nakatani is a delight in a very rough and demanding role. I'd seen her before in films such as "Ring", "Rasen" and "The Hotel Venus", but this is really a break out role for her. It's a role and performance that completely ingratiates her to us while we're opening our second box of Kleenex. Yes, bring a couple of boxes. You'll need them by the end.
The ending of the film is rather uplifting, although it didn't really hit me that way until I began thinking about it later. As it turns out, Matsuko's life was anything but meaningless. If anything, the only meaningless part of her life was her death. In that way, the film is a kind of perfect entertainment. It dazzles and entertains you at the moment and leaves something for you for later. That's my kind of movie.