On paper, a quick scramble through the most memorable moments in the life of Matsuko would make for an unredeemably bleak read. Matsuko is unfairly sacked from her job as teacher, shacks up with a series of abusive lovers, ends up a massage parlour girl, completes an eight-year stint in prison for murder and descends into lonely madness, before her untimely end as a murder victim, at the age of 53.
It sounds dark and then some. But director Tetsuya Nakashima (of Kamikaze Girls fame) has a neon-bright vision, and his love of super-saturated colour, moody lighting and musicals gives this self-aware melodramatic weepy a slick, inventive cartoon dreaminess that is luminously arresting.
The film opens with 20-year-old Sho, played with slacker aplomb by Eita, being dumped by his girlfriend with the brutal announcement: ‘Life with you is a terrible bore.’ Direction-less Sho with mordant nihilism mumbles that ‘at any rate the future’s hopeless’ and heads for a fast-paced video life of clubbing, beer and porn.
His dad, who he hasn’t seen for two years, turns up at his place with a casket of ashes and the surprising news that his estranged and strange elder sister (Sho’s aunt) has been found dead. And Sho has been assigned the job of heading to her apartment to clear up the detritus of her ‘meaningless life’. Discovering a photo of his young aunt, dressed in a kimono, and pulling an absurd face, Sho gradually begins to unravel the mysteries of Matsuko’s life – the tragi-comic tale of a woman who went looking for love in all the wrong places.
Miki Nakatani is given the hard task of playing out the masochistic Matsuko, who seems to have adopted The Crystals’ song, ‘He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)’, as her romantic mantra. Chameleon-like in appearance – changing from a trimly besuited teacher with a prim hat to a bobbed-haired barber’s girlfriend to a cloudy-haired yakuza’s moll, Nakatani is surprisingly convincing, despite the outré-ness of the plot. She seems full of an uncontrollable needy passion, crying out, ‘with him I’d gladly go to hell or anywhere. That’s my happiness’, as she’s punched, yet again, in the eye by her latest (fucked up) beloved.
Nakashima continually ramps up the emotion, and then slyly twists it with a canny visual joke, or a quirky musical interlude. There’s a hip-hop prison song, where the inmates sing the jailhouse blues, or the absurdly perky ‘Happy Wednesday’, a whimsical skip of a song that infects everyone in the scene with a viral chirpiness, as Matsuko plays house for her married lover. The film is full of these kinds of visual delights – Lynchian swathes of hyper-real flowers, glittery Disney-ish birds, the black rubbish bags that turn into a murder of crows, wings beating frantically in Matsuko’s gloomy riverside apartment as her madness takes hold.
The film has its flaws: it’s overly long (130 minutes) and occasionally self-indulgent with its Hollywood ‘weepy’ references – there’s a truly cringe-worthy scene with a Bing Crosby-style priest – and the acting sometimes veers from the dramatic into teeth-clenching hysteria. But overall, Memories of Matsuko is funny and sad, and hugely inventive. It is bonkers, but mostly in a good way.