Between the gaudy musical numbers and the noir-ish crime story, it’s hard to pin down exactly what Memories Of Matsuko is. A melodrama? A tragic-comedy? Or is there another blend of genres that would exactly fit this film’s peculiar mix of the funny, the heartfelt and the painful?
Perhaps just “Japanese” would cover it, if the nearest comparisons didn’t happen to be Pedro Almodovar, the Spanish king of bastardising the classic women’s picture, and Magnolia-era Paul Thomas Anderson. Matsuko is the estranged aunt of protagonist Sho, and she’s dead before the film’s opening.
When Sho’s father gives him the job of cleaning out his aunt’s squalid apartment, Sho accidentally finds some purpose in his depressed and directionless life; he turns detective, not so much to find out who killed his aunt, as to learn how she lived before her death. So the memories are not Matsuko’s own, but how she’s recalled by those who knew her; and the story that Sho pulls together is full of sadness and suffering.
Neglected by her father, who favoured a handicapped younger sister, Matsuko became compliant and approval-seeking. Her career as a schoolteacher is cut short when she covers for a male student accused of stealing, and she leaves the family home in disgrace. This prelude sets the tone for Matsuko’s increasingly sad existence: exploited, abused and isolated, she shifts from lover to lover and place to place, her circumstances growing grimmer each time.
That’s not quite how the film invites you to see Matsuko: it suggests a redemptive arc, in which the heroine’s suffering is recompensed by the way she touched others. Whether you agree depends on how strong your stomach is when it comes to watching Matsuko (played by an agonisingly adorable Miki Nakatani) get ripped off by her pimp boyfriend, battered by her yakuza boyfriend, and ditched by her family.
It might sound like two-anda- bit hours of kitchen sink misery, but the time-hopping structure means it’s punctuated by moments of brightly coloured joy. The movie has a distinctive photocollage style that lends it an intense, hyper-real quality – especially in the brilliant musical numbers, which layer pop choruses and pathos perfectly. Memories Of Matsuko has enough flashes of insight into both the human heart and the art of cinema to win you over from any reservations. Hard to place maybe, but this film – like its heroine – is startlingly easy to love.
Flawed and sometimes distressing, but also funny and charming, this is both high-class mystery and heartbreaking romance.