Even though Matsuko Kawajiri always has a song in her heart, one would never expect to find her in a movie musical. Her world might have been candy-colored, but it was also cruel, constantly denying her the love she yearned for in Tetsuya Nakashima emotionally draining movie musical Memories of Matsuko (trailer here), a “Best of the Unreleased Naughties” selection screening of the 2010 Japan Cuts: Festival of Contemporary Japanese Film.
Shô Kawajiri never knew he had an Aunt Matsuko until his father off-handedly tells him of her murder. Going through something of an aimless period in his own life, he agrees to clean out his Aunt’s apartment for his somewhat estranged old man. As he rummages through the remnants of her fractured life, he comes to know his Aunt better in death than anyone knew her in life.
Matsuko endured more suffering than seems humanly possible. Once a conscientious teacher popular for her singing voice, she was unfairly dismissed for a crime she did not commit. Disowned by her family, she tolerated one abusive relationship after another, desperately seeking the love her father withheld. Spiraling ever downward, she is lured into a career of vice, even doing a stint in prison. At least there she meets of her few true friends, the future porn-star tycoon Megumi Sawamura. Unfortunately, the ever-suffering Kawajiri is not even close to bottoming out, yet she perseveres, like an indomitable Candide in a blizzard of humiliation.
Though at times it presents itself as an over-the-top parody, Memories is an absolutely exhausting film. It never, ever lets up on its poor kind-hearted protagonist. Indeed, Miki Nakatani’s earnest performance is so endearingly goofy and vulnerable, it makes Memories that much more difficult to watch. Beyond compelling, she is frankly devastating. She is the film, but Asuka Kurosawa is also quite touching as the alluring Sawamura.
Strangely, Memories works surprisingly well on a musical level, particularly Matsuko’s poignant yet devilishly catchy theme song by Gabriele Roberto and Takeshi Shibuya. Also represented at this year’s Japan Cuts with Confessions, the brilliant opening selection, Nakashima is obviously not drawn to cheerful trifles. Ironically, while Memories is a far more depressing cinematic experience (despite its bright colors and upbeat songs), it ultimately expresses a deeply humanist sentiment not found in Confessions. In fact, Memories explicitly states: “no life is meaningless.”
Fearless in the title role, Nakatani justly swept the Japanese film awards for Memories. Technically and dramatically accomplished, it is a film sure to inspire passionate reactions. Love it or hate, when Memories is over, you will know you saw a film. It screens at the Japan Society this coming Thursday (7/15).