Tetsuya Nakashima made his name through the mesmerising visuals of Kamikaze Girls (2004) and the sombre but deeply moving Confessions (2010). Here, Fergus Byrne takes a look back at one of his lesser known offerings, Memories of Matusko (2006). This tale of love, lust, pain and the enduring search for purpose is one that will inevitably leave viewers dwelling in bouts of self-reflection long after the credits role.
Director: Tetsuya Nakashima
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Neither the original Japanese title “Life of despised Matsuko”, nor its English simplification “Memories of Matsuko” capture the depth of this brooding, macabre window into how our childhood fantasies can come tumbling down under the unforgiving weight of reality. In this powerful offering, our lead Matsuko gives us love, death, sex (plenty of it) and hatred through just about every possible means. Director Tetsuya Nakashima brings Muneki Yamada’s acclaimed novel to life with great skill and through each of Matsuko’s increasingly farcical tribulations, the audience is kept captive by the singular realisation that her struggles are not so distant and that life really is a matrix through which pain and pleasure can be dished out as if they were the same.
In this tale, which is as painfully funny as it is painful to watch, we are introduced to a young bounding Matsuko, who is constantly competing for the attention of her father, with her cherished but chronically-ill sister. Never quite succeeding, Matsuko sets out on her own path and at 21 she is a respectable teacher with and angelic voice and adoring pupils to boot.
Unfortunately, here as in just about every phase in Matsuko’s tragic life, farce ensues. Unremittingly loyal by nature, Matsuko loses her job when taking the blame for a theft committed by one of her students. In oft repeated but deftly managed theme, the audience is led to believe that Matsuko will be relieved from her unpleasant fate, when she is bribed into baring flesh for her unsightly principle’s pleasure. However this is the ‘despised’ Matsuko and instead she is very publically humiliated and summarily dismissed. Herein begins a chain of events which leads to her miserable death on the banks of the river by which she had eked out a lonely life, dreaming of her father, lost loves and some semblance of that thing we like to call happiness.
Matsuko’s is a story powerful enough in and of itself to require only minimalistic cinematography. However, just as in the hugely popular Kamikaze Girls, Nakashima treats the audience to a stunning combination of visuals which capture the kaleidoscopic worlds of Japanese manga and pop-art, evoking at times an almost fantasia-esque backdrop to our lead’s painful demise into penury and “meaninglessness”.
In Tokyo Sonata (2008), Kiyoshi Kurosawa presents the painfully believable story of a family breakdown, when the husband of the household lies to his wife in the wake of being fired, puts on his suit and sits out his days in a park with the homeless, resorting to scavenging rather than admit to his ‘shame’. In Memories of Matsuko we see the same miserable human decay (interspersed with moments of hilarious levity), but Nakashima ensures that the audience leaves the film with questions of their own. This is not some kind of cynical man’s Forest Gump, but a film which provides a novel perspective on the shop-worn answer to the question “why are we really here?”
We might not have needed 127 minutes of vertiginous highs and sickening lows to make us appreciate that we are insecure primates who need our lovers and our families more than we might like to admit, but Memories of Matsuko takes you on a ride, one which wrenches our gut and is impossible to ignore.