Memories of Matsuko (2006) by Tetsuya Nakashima

Sho (Eita) is something of a dropout, having moved to Tokyo to be a musician, he is stuck in a rut. His father (Teruyuki Kagawa), who he hasn’t seen for two years, arrives to tell him that his aunt, Matsuko (Miki Nakatani), has died. Matsuko was apparently murdered in a park. Sho arrives at her apartment to clear out and is met by her neighbour who tells him Matsuko was disliked by those around her, with poor hygiene and odd behaviours, including screaming for no apparent reason. Sho is intrigued by his aunt’s story and so begins a journey of discovery as we are whisked back in time to follow the young Matsuko through several decades of her life. Beginning as a child competing for her father’s affections with her ailing sister; then a short-lived career as a teacher; Matsuko goes through a number of violent relationships, always searching for happiness and a sense of belonging.

“Memories of Matsuko” is artistic, vibrant, and exuberant, blending elements of fantasy and musical sequences with moments of brutal realism. The plot is cleverly constructed, with flashback sequences and the wraparound story of Matsuko’s nephew delving into his aunt’s chequered past. It never loses momentum and the two elements work well together. The film will often have characters describe something that happened, and then go back to show it, creating an expectation of upcoming events. Far from undermining the tension, after all the audience knows from the beginning Matsuko’s fate, it heightens a feeling of tragic inevitability. Miki Nakatani’s performance is exceptional, a complex character dealing with trauma and tragedy. The direction is frantic, flashing imagery and bright, varicoloured sets, blinding lights glinting through windows. The opening sequence and the massage parlour musical number are an assault on the senses and there is always the feeling that you are being shown Matsuko’s own view of particular moments in her life, part real-life and part coloured by her emotions. The set design of filthy, rubbish strewn apartments, the digitally enhanced fantasy funfair, are superb in creating a visceral, impactful sense of the psychological made manifest. Part of the film’s brilliance is being able to move seamlessly between various tones. There are dark themes of domestic abuse and parental neglect, alongside comedic scenes and moments of transcendental joy and hope.

This film is a masterclass in film-making, creating a truly unique experience that is engaging from beginning to end. As Sho delves further into his aunt’s colourful and atypical life, he learns what it is to live and to love. Matsuko seems to be a victim of fate, moving from one abusive relationship to the next, and seeing any happiness she finds snatched away from her. There are references to Dazai Osamu, famous author and suicide, that connect to the central themes of struggling to find a meaning or purpose for life, while being on a self-destructive path. This is counterbalanced by the religious notions, most notably embodied by the character who carries around a Bible and is obsessed with the phrase “God is love”, that seems to offer a more hopeful outlook for humanity. It is hard to break down everything in the film as it is so packed with incidence, touching on societal issues such as the sex industry, patriarchy and male violence, faith, mental health, relationships, family, and the nature of memory. An incredible experience that utilises the art of cinema to tell a compelling film packed with raw emotion.

My Friend ‘A’ (2018)

Masuda (Toma Ikuta) and Suzuki (Eita) are new recruits at a factory in Saitama. Masuda is a former journalist who has given up his vocation for unknown reasons to take on this manual work. Suzuki is an inscrutable figure, attracting the ire and suspicions of his co-workers. The two are friends through circumstance and learn more about one another as the film goes on. When a brutal murder of a junior high-schooler happens nearby, Masuda is led to believe by a former colleague that Suzuki may be responsible. We soon discover that both men are running away from their pasts. In a parallel story we follow cab driver Yamauchi, whose son was responsible for a terrible tragedy and who is struggling to come to terms with the guilt and the ensuing break up of his family.

“My Friend ‘A’” is based on a novel by Gaku Yakumaru and both the pacing and number of characters reflect these literary origins. Not only do we have Masuda, Suzuki and Yamauchi, around whom the majority of the film revolves; but abundant side characters who are rendered in varying levels of details. Yamauchi’s family, his son and new partner; a parole officer (Yasuko Tomita) and her relationship with her own daughter; Suzuki and Masuda’s co-workers, Masuda’s ex-girlfriend and colleague at the newspaper; and Suzuki’s girlfriend. It is an almost overwhelming amount of subplots and details to take in. Director Takahisa Zeze does a good job, helped by an amazing cast, of making all of these rounded characters, though at times it feels a little overcrowded with so many stories to follow. The film takes its time to build up the audience relationships with the characters and the thematic threads connect everyone in a satisfactory way. It is a film very much about ideas and will linger on a shot to allow the audience time to think about the significance of certain moments. This is an uncomfortable watch with child murder, self-harm, suicide, rape, and bullying being major plot points. For the most part these things are mentioned only obliquely, though there are a couple of shocking moments. The overwhelming emotion of the film is sadness that these things occur and a sense of powerlessness in the face of such events.

The film explores notions of guilt and redemption through its main characters, both of whom have deep regrets about their actions as younger men. Now they are adults, they question whether they can ever leave behind these things, or whether they are doomed to be haunted by their mistakes forever. It is a dark and difficult debate, one which many people are unwilling or unable to have due to the depth of feeling associated with the types of crimes and events detailed in the film. Forgiveness for crimes is an impossibility for many though the film does a sterling job of addressing the issue and evoking a level of compassion and understanding for its protagonists. The past is something that all the characters are dragging around with them, held back by its weight, unable to forget it. The film also poses the question of whether a person can and should be defined by a certain action. The moral ambiguity makes this a much more difficult watch that many crime features, in that it is asking the audience troubling questions about their own feelings on these issues. On a deeper level the film considers the notion of evil and the sanctity of life. The importance of continuing to live in a world that is so wicked and corrupt is expressed by several characters and becomes the single point of hope in this bleak world.