A middle-aged woman is murdered by the river. There’s no one to mourn her — she lived alone in squalor, barely removed from homelessness. Her neighbors knew only that she smelled bad and sometimes screamed to herself at night. Her 20-year-old nephew Sho (Eita), who had no idea she even existed, is enlisted by his father to clear out her apartment, where, sorting through the remnants of her life, he learns that the woman, Matsuko (Miki Nakatani), bounced from terrible relationship to terrible relationship, was disowned by their family, worked as a prostitute and served time for murder.
All in all a pretty wretched life, but what makes the self-proclaimed “fairy tale tragedy” “Memories of Matsuko” so good, even a little great, is that Matsuko refused to accept so, and accordingly, the film is both a musical and a brilliant whirl of stylized, candy-colored visuals, “The Life of Oharu” by way of a neon “Amelie.”
Like Mizoguchi‘s miserable heroine, Matsuko was once ensconced in a respectable life. In flashbacks, we see her first in her early 20s, working as a middle-school teacher and being wooed by a handsome coworker. She’s thrilled by the promise of romance, but the love she really yearns for is paternal — her solemn father has always favored her sweet, invalid sister and scarcely given Matsuko any attention.
When she’s forced to quit her job after a misunderstanding when one of her students steals some money on a field trip, her troubles at home come to a head, and in shame and rage she leaves, forever, as it turns out.
From there, she falls into a relationship with an abusive, alcoholic writer, and then on to one with his married rival, whose attacks turn out to be emotional. Then on to a soapland, and, more degradingly, out of the soapland, no longer in fashion and unwanted, and into the arms of a pimp, and onwards toward an ending we already know.
This is, under its giddy appearance, unrelentingly grim melodrama — every fresh start arrives hand in hand with dread at what will come next. Matsuko’s no martyr; she has no sense of self-worth, she makes awful decisions, is more than a bit pathetic, and embraces her role as a human punching bag, but she maintains an unwavering faith in the belief that happiness can and must lie only in other people, and when each tragedy has her declaring her life is surely at an end, each new man has her singing again.
She’s is a holy fool — she can’t not love completely and selflessly without judgment or discrimination. Her devotion is so total that it’s frightening, even ultimately repellent to the men she’s involved with, and it leads her to believe that no one will ever love her back, because no one is willing to love with her reckless total commitment.
Director Tetsuya Nakashima last chronicled suburban subculture malaise in the enjoyable trifle “Kamikaze Girls,” and here that fanciful visual style kaleidoscopes out to encompass an entire world of magic in the mundane and the woeful. The film’s most indelible image is one of an amusement park on the roof of a city department store, a setting of impossible wonder when first glimpsed in a childhood memory, and later the more prosaic, bittersweet backdrop to a grown-up confrontation framed by a Greek chorus of stage performers. Almost as memorable is the dreamlike, starlit grassy field in which Matsuko meets her end, and in which the film finds in its foreordained tragedy an unexpected and well-earned moment of grace.
“Memories of Matsuko” will play at the Japan Society July 7 at 8:45pm and July 8 at 1:00pm. It has no US distribution.