Tuesday, August 26, 2008

REVIEW: Memories of Matsuko - Tetsuya Nakashima (2006)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

About halfway through Tetsuya Nakashima’s “Memories of Matsuko” (2006) a female character nicely sums up the crux of the film: “Every little girl dreams of being Snow White, Cinderella, of living a fairy tale. Then we wake up one day and see our white swan has become a crow.” This is a film shot through just these kind of fairy tale rose-coloured glasses, but doesn’t so much resemble Snow White as it does Beauty and the Beast.

The story opens on Shō (Eita Nagayama), a young man who after breaking up with his girlfriend is visited by his father and told about an aunt he never knew he had, in fact he brings her along in an urn full of ashes. It turns out that Shō’s aunt Matsuko (Miki Nakatani) was found dead, murdered on the banks of a river. Why hadn’t Shō ever heard of Matsuko from his father before? He’ll start to piece this mystery together once his father sets him the task of clearing out her filthy apartment.

Now, who wouldn’t be intrigued about uncovering the details of a long lost relative? The set up for “Memories of Matsuko” is a good one, but it’s what Shō discovers that makes this film really disturbing and I dare say dangerous.

Matsuko’s story starts out in 1971 when she is working as a junior high school teacher. On a field trip her young student steals some cash from a shop, but refuses to admit to the crime. Matsuko decides that the best way to make amends is to “borrow” money from another teacher to pay the shop back. The plan, although done with the best intentions, blows up in her face and Matsuko is fired for theft. Add to this a distraught Matsuko attacking her sickly younger sister and suddenly a smiling, singing Julie Andrews impersonation turns ugly, and I witnessed one of the worst Madonna/ whore complexes I think I’ve ever seen on film.

You would think that someone like Matsuko, who must have gone through school and was intelligent enough to secure a teacher’s license could or would move on with her life as best as she was able, but no. Nakashima paints her as utterly devoid of self-esteem, and respect. Suddenly the focus of Matsuko’s life is to get involved with one loser after another: a hack writer, a spineless barber, a small time pimp, even the boy who stole the money on the field trip who grows up to be a yakuza thug. One after another these men beat, humiliate and even force Matsuko into prostitution and the shocking thing is she just takes it, even delivering the cringe worthy line, “I don’t mind being hit, just as long as I’m not alone.” (?!?!?!) And to add insult to injury “Memories of Matsuko” makes light of this never ending abuse by setting it to song. Yes, this is a musical complete with Busby Berkley dance numbers and imagery worthy of Douglas Sirk or even Walt Disney!

I could say more, but putting these words down just makes me angry. “Memories of Matsuko” is an over long, ill-conceived, and yes, dangerous film for the way it portrays women: either as trilling, virginal school marms or as brittle, pathetic whores. A BIG pass on this one.

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