Memories of Matsuko Review
When the body of a middle-aged woman is found in a field, her nephew, Shou (Eita) is notified by his father (Teruyuki Kagawa), who asks of him to take care of her personal belongings. Shou had never known his aunt Matsuko (Miki Nakatani) and begrudgingly obeys his father’s wishes; his father having severed all ties with her many years ago. Not long after arriving at her dilapidated apartment, Shou soon discovers a little treasure trove of his aunt’s prized possessions. His imagination, existing documents and word from nearby folk help him to piece together the life of an extraordinary woman whose short time on this planet wasn’t quite as meaningless as it may have seemed.
There’s little faulting director Tetsuya Nakashima’s intentions of turning even the most cynical of gestures into something joyous or profound. 2004’s Kamikaze Girls demonstrated his gifted knack of social satire by juxtaposing it with bright and cheerful visuals and larger-than-life performances. It was a huge success in Japan and garnered plenty of interest overseas, so when he announced his next project was to be adapted from Muneki Yamada’s novel “Matsuko” the outlook was uncertain. In a sense both Kamikaze Girls and Memories of Matsuko aren’t too dissimilar; they both share central themes of finding meaning in one’s life, but tonally they’re quite different beasts altogether. In contrast Memories of Matsuko is a daring and whimsical tale which goes straight for the gut as it deals with the seemingly depressing existence of a woman whose life was filled with nothing but despair: who went from promising school teacher to murderer and Yakuza’s mol, before winding up at the age of 53 battered to death in a field, overweight and unrecognisable from her former self. This bleak outlook wouldn’t ordinarily lend itself well to most genres, but Nakashima shows us a completely different understanding of events. His interpretation of such dark subject matter is a unique sight to behold, traversing serious issues of neglect and abuse by highlighting Matsuko’s ultimate dreams of love via snazzy visuals and happy musical interludes.
Told in a non-linear fashion, much like his previous “Shimotsuma Monogatari”, and with no shortage of familiar traits such as 16mm montages and stylised CG transitions, Matsuko gradually reveals the turbulent life of its protagonist through a somewhat randomised series of life-changing events, which on more than one occasion come across as mere parodies of Japanese television dramas. But it’s the aforementioned musical set pieces which take precedence; skilfully interwoven throughout the narrative, these are designed to escape the drudgery of Matsuko’s immediate predicament by offering an upbeat depiction of her innermost self. The influences here come thick and fast, with visual cues taken from classics like Gone with the Wind, The Sound of Music, Chicago and any number of Disney offerings, all the while with Nakashima employing the kind of gaudy colour scheme which has now become something of a signature throughout most of his features to date. Perhaps more appropriately is that through these Nakashima never tries to paint Matsuko as being something she’s not; despite her bouts of sincerity her past actions are never excused and she’s forced to face the consequences of such, but like anyone else, for all her flaws, she is still a human being who simply wants to be loved. The importance of Matsuko’s journey becomes apparent early on with the introduction of her nephew Shou, and like Nakashima’s previous outing the resulting message is simple, for while Matsuko’s own life may have been doomed from the start, she was an inspiration to those who came into (or indirectly) contact with her. The film’s only shortcoming is that it does take 2 hours and 10 minutes to get this across and coupled with some select imagery it feels as if its preaching to the masses. Still, a little indulgence on the director’s behalf doesn’t greatly affect the overall outcome.
Miki Nakatani’s role, then, is a difficult one to portray. She’s not an immediately sympathetic individual as Matsuko - through various points in time - is portrayed as being deceitful, inconsiderate and selfish, but Nakatani is indeed the film’s trump card; having a powerful presence and exhibiting flawless timing as she once more displays not only her comedic skills but also a strong understanding of how to inject the right amount of pathos into her role. But again, director Nakashima pulls together a terrific supporting cast, with Eita doing well to help bind the story together, while Asuka Kurosawa enjoys a turn as a porn star and Yusuke Iseya braves it as a tortured Yakuza. A host of memorable cameos including Gori, Kankuro Kuda, YosiYosi Arakawa and Akira Emoto ensure that Memories of Matsuko remains a refreshing journey into the life of a woman who would never realise her greatest gift.
You’d think Memories of Matsuko would be ripe for 2.35:1 presentation, given its staggering scope, but Tetsuya Nakashima saw fit to shoot digitally at 1.75:1, which works amazingly well. Sadly, Third Window Films has failed to do it the kind of justice it deserves; I‘m presuming they had to deal with what they were sent, but still, these are never fun to sit through. It’s non-anamorphic for a start, and due to the nature of the hard-matted subtitles which overlap the image it makes zooming in impossible. Unfortunately it’s also another NTSC-PAL jobby, exhibiting ghosting and interlacing, which by nature makes the image appear a little softer than it should be. Anything else is down to the director’s style. He employs high contrast, heavy saturation and diffusion filters for many sequences as he seeks to capture a dreamy quality, and these are presented well on the disc; the colour balance overall is pleasant, even if black levels are lacking finer shadow detail.
We’ve also choices of Japanese DD2.0 and 5.1 Surround. For my primary viewing session I went with the latter, and it certainly improves over the transfer’s misgivings. Naturally it’s the music which is afforded the most attention, with the rear channels picking up some strong bass while the fronts present plenty of clarity for the lyrics. Likewise the central channels handle dialogue splendidly, leaving this with very few complaints.
The English subtitles do let things down slightly though. Aside from a couple of grammatical errors they provide a solid translation, although curiously toward the end of the feature not all of the songs are translated in full.
Headlining the bonus features is ‘Making of Matsuko’ (30.28). It begins with Tetsuya Nakashima not being particularly forthcoming when it comes to discussing the character of Matsuko, preferring us to interpret her in our own way. This leads on to the usual behind-the-scenes gubbins, showing the director and actors hard at work, while interspersed interviews provide us with a strong idea of what it was like on set. The actors talk frankly about working with Nakashima and his harsh directing style, while also detailing the positive outcome that the film has ultimately had on their lives.
‘Film to Storyboard Comparison’ (12.39) looks at taking select scenes from the original storyboard and elaborating on them greatly, such as the heavily choreographed dance numbers. It also offers side-by-side comparisons for particular scenes.
Both features come with English translations.
For its tragic nature I’m not going to say that Memories of Matsuko is for everyone, and it may even disappoint those who loved the playfulness of Kamikaze Girls, but it is in its own right a beautiful feature that juggles poignancy and comedy rather well, as it sees Tetsuya Nakashima continue to bravely defy genre conventions.