July 11th, 2007
Directed by Tetsuya Nakashima. Winner of the Asian Film Award and the Kinema Jumpo Award for best actress (Miki Nakatani). In Japanese with English subtitles.
The subject matter of this film is completely at odds with the presentation. Every second of it is ironic. I don’t know what to make of it, but I keep thinking about it, so maybe it works. At the very least it’s an audacious experiment.
On the surface it is a cartoonish, glossy-surfaced musical, all bright primary colours, with plenty of singing and dancing. Now and then little Disneyish animated birdies appear in a swirl of stardust. It’s like candy, and it’s really quite beautiful. But what is it about?
Matsuko, a young music teacher, is falsely accused of stealing. Wanting to avoid trouble, she accepts blame for the crime and is fired from her job. Banished by her family, she falls in love with an angry writer who beats her. He then commits suicide by standing in front of a train. (This occurs onscreen, in full view of Matsuko and us. Cue the birdies!)
After another failed affair with a different writer, Matsuko turns to prostitution. Guilty of murdering her pimp, she is imprisoned for several years, after which she becomes a Yakuza girl (girlfriend to a Yakuza gangster). Eventually she lives out her life as a bag lady until she is murdered by schoolchildren in a random act of violence.
Matsuko with birdies
What’s going on here? Nothing is as it seems, and the film isn’t subtle about it either. I think you have to separate yourself into two parts to watch it - one that follows the story, and another that looks at the visuals. Maybe there also has to be a third part, the one that tries to put it together and make sense of it. (Could it be that every movie requires these three parts, but we don’t usually notice? Perhaps that is the real message of this movie. How very post-modern!)
It worked for me, but I can’t really explain why. I don’t know if it would work again. It’s possible that its appeal lies entirely in its novelty. If Nakashima tries it again, won’t viewers just go “Oh yeah, that again,” and not bother with it?
I’m not sure. But I think you should see it. It is sad, gorgeous, light-hearted, tragic, puzzling, and thought-provoking. I recommend it highly.