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July 06, 2010

Memories of Matsuko

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Kiraware Matsuko no issho
Tetsuya Nakashima - 2006
Lambaian Filem Region 0 DVD

Many of the best musicals have essentially sad stories. Even the musical numbers aren't always joyful. Anyone who thinks that "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is a happy ode to the holidays hasn't been listening very carefully, or has forgotten the heart wrenching moments in Meet Me in Saint Louis. Memories of Matsuko made me think not so much of specific films by Vincente Minnelli and Bob Fosse, but their careers that embraced both the fakery of the musical genre and dramas focussed on the seamier side of life. Consider that Minnelli's work includes both the fantasy of The Pirate and the outcasts and losers of Some Came Running and the fractured family of Home from the Hill. Bob Fosse's All that Jazz encapsulates a filmography of self-destructive artists that also includes Cabaret and Star 80. Tetsuya Nakashima's film has both hyper pastel colors and animated singing birds, and the kind of melodrama and tragedy that could only have been hinted at in an MGM movie of a bygone era.

Nakashima is probably best known for his manic Kamikaze Girls, the frequently comic story of two very different teenage girls, whose dedication to particular fashion styles makes them both outcasts in their rural town. That Memories of Matsuko hasn't even garnered a U.S. DVD release has nothing to do with the quality of the film, but is more of a commentary on distributors incapable of embracing a film that defies easy marketing. It may sound like a cheap shot to describe the film as the manic and depressing story of a woman who was both manic and depressed. The flashbacks of Matsuko's life are told within the exploration of a young man investigating the mystery of an aunt he didn't know, and her death under suspicious circumstances.

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A description of the story would probably scare more viewers. Matsuko is seen as a young girl, seemingly ignored by her father who dotes on Matsuko's chronically ill younger sister. The closest to approval and affection Matsuko gets from her father is making a face that makes him laugh. That facial expression gets Matsuko in trouble later as an adult. Matsuko's adult life is the stuff of a dozen Joan Crawford movies, with one abusive lover after another, and an existence mostly on the fringes of society. Matsuko's life is described as meaningless, yet the people that the nephew meets explain how their own lives were affected by this woman whose life seemed like a series of one bad turn after another.

The alteration between past and present, and fantasy and reality, as well as the musical numbers, suggest that Nakashima is the filmmaker that should have been given the assignments handed to Rob Marshall. There's more song than dance, but the best musical moments belong to "Happy Wednesday" which is centered around the domestic bliss Matsuko experiences with one married lover, and another song, "Love is Bubble" is about Matsuko's experience as a "soap girl", working at a place where massages are disguised as personalized bathing. There are some comic moments, particularly when the nephew meets one of Matsuko's friends, a very successful porno star.

Even the final credits, in large yellow print, reading "The End" will recall older Hollywood movies. Nakashima, discussing Memories of Matsuko with Mark Schilling stated, "But look at The Sound of Music - that's a film with plenty of sadness in it. Or Cabaret - the heroine hardly has an easy time, does she? The really great musicals usually have something serious going on behind the songs - that's what gives them their power. And that's the sort of film I've tried to make."

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 6, 2010 12:22 AM