“Memories of Matsuko” (2006)

Tetsuya Nakashima’s Memories of Matsuko is structured like La Commare Seca and Vagabond: a friendless, destitute woman is found dead in a remote location, and in flashback we learn how she got there. But where Bertolucci and Varda deliberately withheld a lot of information and their narratives took some major jumps forward, we see Matsuko’s life in deep and continuous detail from the time she’s about 10 until her death at 53. Things start going seriously wrong for her in her 20s, when an act of kindness backfires on her and she’s fired from her teaching job; from there on it’s like Great Expectations in reverse, with a steady descent through a series of abusive relationships, prostitution, murder, a prison term, etc., through all of which she holds onto her dreams for happiness as if she’s in a Joan Crawford movie rather than a seriously effed up life. The plotting drips with brilliance: small details are planted which find a payoff only half an hour down the road; we view some events from dual perspectives with differing feelings about them each time they occur; and a couple of the twists and turns caught me far off my guard. It’s a large and very moving canvas, part musical, part women’s picture, part bummer fairy-tale.

That’s all the good stuff, but there’s a trickier side, too. While the writing and acting are in a restrained, quasi-naturalistic groove, Memories of Matsuko is shot and cut like a Long Island iced tea, equal parts music video, Disney cartoon, Japanese game-show, MGM musical, and the silliest scene Darren Aronofsky ever shot, all thrown into a blender and mixed into an eye-gouging, ass-shaking knockout drink. The almost constant soundtrack also comes from everywhere: Gershwin, hip-hop, classical, lots and lots of J-pop, and I think I even heard a little Streisand in there. Even more headachey, only a couple of scenes have a normal palette; the vast majority of the film has been digitally tweaked to a lurid nighttime blue, bright lime green, or scorching purple, while some of the sets—most notably a carnival residing on the roof of a huge department store—were clearly parented by a team of programmers. This onslaught of hyperbolic geegaws had me in petit mal seizures for at least the first half hour or so, and I’d love to see how a straight version of it would play, but I’m glad I hung in there. Matsuko’s a rich experience, even if I never sit through it again.

I’m also looking forward to Nakashima’s newest movie, Confessions. They’ve come up with a pip of a trailer for it:

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