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Saturday, 28 November 2009

Memories of Matsuko (2006)

Life is forever full of pleasant surprises. This Japanese flim has been languishing on my hard disc for a few weeks now, begging to be viewed. Knowing nothing about it (for once I hadn't done my research), I was put off by its downbeat description as a film chronicling a woman's tragic life. What I was more than pleased to discover is that the tragic tale in question was told as a brightly-coloured fairy-tale, a flamboyant fantasia, full of invention, infectious music, and even uplifting pathos.

Directed by Tetsuya Nakashima who was also responsible for the very jolly "Kamikaze Girls" (2004), it stars Miki Nakatani as one of life's natural victims from her childhood, through her years as a naive teacher, and later, as her circumstances spiral downward, as the mistress of two would-be poets, a whore, a prisoner inside for murder, a yakuza moll, and finally a mentally disturbed baglady. The actress inhabits the role from the character's early twenties until her murder at age 53, taking on the necessary makeup, costume, hairstyles, and demeanour to show the passage of time and the changes in her life. Her history is gradually revealed by a young nephew, who never knowingly knew her, when his father reveals that he had an older sister who was disowned by the family and instructs his son to clear the mess in the filthy tenement where she ended her days. Bit by bit a picture emerges of a woman who was everybody's punching bag but who optimistically kept looking for love and companionship.

As a young girl she tried hard to capture her father's affections which appeared to be reserved for her bedridden, younger sister. Since he seemed so depressed, she took it upon herself to make a certain funny face which always made him smile, and that grimace became her first defense when faced with any pending disaster. Her initial downfall occurs during a school trip when she tries to protect one of her teenaged students who has stolen some money, but she ends up both sexually abused by a fellow-teacher and shamefully fired. It's all downhill from there, 'though she views the world through rose-coloured glasses, as the director skillfully reveals through the amazing set decoration. Even when the student comes back into her life much later professing love, she eagerly embraces him, despite his having been the initial cause of her degradation.

While this may seem both melodramatic and depressing, it is really nothing of the sort; the stylish verve with which her story unravels in a series of flashbacks leaves one feeling hopeful. Even after her death there is an imaginative coda which is guaranteed to bring tears to the most cynical viewer. This is definitely a film which deserves to be better known and which almost certainly will find its place as a cult favourite.
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