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Friday, June 2, 2006

Dreaming of love in a downward spiral

Kiraware Matsuko no Issho

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Tetsuya Nakashima
Running time: 129 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
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Directors of TV commercials have to quickly grab easily distracted viewers against a blizzard of competition. When they move into feature films, many still assume short attention spans -- and blitz audience eyeballs accordingly.

News photo
Miki Nakatani in "Kiraware Matsuko no Issho" (c) 2006 "KIRAWARE MATSUKO NO ISSHO" SEISAKU IINKAI

Looking at the trailer of Tetsuya Nakashima's new film "Kiraware Matsuko no Issho (Memories of Matsuko)," it's easy to believe this veteran director of commercials, as well as the international hit "Shimotsuma Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls)," falls into this category. The rush of CG-assisted images, beginning with a musical stage show about a fairy tale princess, are colorful, bubbly and glitzy to point of self parody. The title character, a girl we first see watching the show with her dour dad (Akira Emoto), is so smiley and bright-eyed that she might pop from sheer delight. Surely this has to be a comedy?

But the girl (Miki Nakatani) grows up and, instead of meeting the Prince Charming of her dreams, suffers every possible calamity: A popular teacher at a provincial junior high school in the early 1970s, she nobly takes responsibility for a student's theft -- and is fired. Considered a disgrace by her family, she reels from one bad relationship to another. Seeking love, she finds only abandonment and abuse. Then she becomes a massage-parlor whore, kills her pimp and goes to prison.

Her salvation, ironically, is Ryu (Yusuke Iseya), the young thief who cost her the teaching job.

Now a gangster, he encounters Matsuko on her downward slide and falls in love with her. She returns his passion and, after her release from prison, finds happiness with him. It can't last, though -- and Matsuko begins her final descent to loneliness, madness and death.

Sounds depressing, doesn't it? But asked to clean Matsuko's disaster zone of a flat (she was a pathological hoarder in her declining years) her slacker nephew (Eita) discovers mementos of her checkered past, and realizes that she lived life to the full, never giving up her dream of love.

The splashy visuals and brassy musical numbers that initially seemed to channel "Chicago," including its slick cynicism, take on new meaning and weight.

They express the inner Matsuko, in all her irrepressible vitality and optimism.

Nakashima's approach -- including uptempo song-and-dance numbers to celebrate Ma-tsuko's downer existence -- may look radical or outright odd, but he used a similar one in "Shimotsuma Monogatari," an exuberantly surreal, candy-colored romp about two outsider girls -- one a sneering punk biker, another a frilly fashionista -- who become unlikely allies and friends. "Matsuko," in other words, is Nakashima being Nakashima. Expecting this master of visual fireworks to film a sober, tasteful social document is like expecting Tom Wolfe to write a measured, balanced, dull-as-dust editorial.

At the same time, in "Matsuko" Nakashima is trying to raise his commercial profile beyond the cult fan base of "Shimotsuma." Thus the impression of strain -- since he is more naturally a black humorist than a feel-good entertainer. Also, the gap between the sheer awfulness of what befalls Matsuko and the film's glitzy look and upbeat tone would be hard to bridge for anyone, entertainer or no. Nakashima succeeds better than most -- for his stylistic chutzpah, if nothing else.

Based on Muneki Yamada's eponymous best-selling novel, "Matsuko" in almost any other hands would be a dark melodrama about a woman who loved too well, lived too recklessly and drew no winning numbers in life's lottery. Nakashima's approach avoids -- or rather explodes -- genre cliches, but he also keep the focus firmly on his central message: Love gives life its value, despite appearances to the contrary.

The question is whether Matsuko's love for her hot-tempered, violence-prone gangster boyfriend is worth the physical and mental pain. I say walk quickly in the opposite direction -- to freedom, safety and that rainy day stash in a postal-savings account. But that's just me.

Miki Nakatani, who played the nerdy hero's love interest in last year's smash "Densha Otoko (Train Man)," shows more of her comic side in "Matsuko," especially in her scenes as a fallen woman, but she never loses sight of her character's passion -- and persistence. There is a direct line from the little girl bubbling with romantic dreams and the woman holding onto her soul, while living a nightmare.

For all its mainstream ambitions, "Matsuko" is not really for the "Life Is Beautiful" crowd that wants its uplift straight. It's too contrary and strange, if gorgeously made. Something like Matsuko herself.

Read the interview:
Tetsuya Nakashima
Adding color to darkness

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