Many people may believe that their favorite movies are perfect. Others may acknowledge that their favorite movies have issues, while still being their favorite movies. Well…this one…is a story about the life of a troubled woman desperately searching for love, and about the horrific behavior that she endures (and sometimes engages in) in order to maintain the feeling of being in love until she is found murdered. You might not particularly like many of the movies that I have featured in this series, but you may absolutely despise this one. Still, it is my favorite movie. And I will attempt to explain why.
Available…online somewhere. Actually, someone posted a Youtube embed in the comments. Approximately 130 minutes.
There are people all around us. We have stories; so do they. They all have dreams, wishes, desires. Some dreams may be realized, others may be shattered. Some dreams may be ridiculously big, some may be pathetically small. Some dreams may not be recognized by the people who dream them. Some people may go unnoticed for years. But, they each have a story.
Sho’s girlfriend has just dumped him. She calls him a boring do-nothing, so she leaves him. So Sho does what any 20-year-old dude who just got dumped would do: binge on partying and porn. Yet, he feels empty, like he is dying. Like he wants to die. In one of his passed-out dream-states, he hears the familiar voice of a young girl singing by the riverside. Who is she? She is Matsuko…but who is Matsuko?
Sho’s father, Norio, comes to see him, startling him up while he was still sleeping. After not seeing each other for two years or so, this visit must be important. Norio, it turns out, had an older sister, whom he had never really talked about with Sho. A sister named Matsuko. And she died three days ago. Beaten to death after 53 years of a meaningless life. The main reason why Norio told his son about her at all now was because someone has to clean her apartment and he is too busy to do so. It is a little ironic, given how cluttered Sho’s apartment is (perhaps the clutter gave him joy), but Sho has little choice in the matter. And, when he gets to the apartment the next day, it is apparent that she was much messier than he.
As Sho tries to sift through the mess in his late aunt’s apartment, he picks up little clues about her life. There is a poster of an 80s teen idol band. There is a picture of her as a young woman, making a silly face. There is a note that she scribbled on the wall outside, asking for forgiveness for being born. There are the statements from her punk rock neighbor that she would scream, keep all of her trash, and go out to stare at water by the riverbank. There is a car with the gangster-looking guys just hanging out on the street out back. There is a photograph that the investigator brings of a recently released prisoner who had known Matsuko 18 years ago. This all seems like the setup to a murder mystery. But when the investigator tells Sho that Matsuko used to be a junior high school teacher, the movie goes into an extended flashback to 30 years ago.
Matsuko is 23-years-old and conducting a girl’s chorus in the school and in a boat on the river. This is the first true musical sequence in the film, as well as the first true introduction of Matsuko as the protagonist. It is a pretty song in a pretty setting, but all is not well, as the boat passes a group of boys fighting nearby. It appears that Matsuko and the girls do not notice the fighting, even as one of the boys stops to look at them. Matsuko is very good at ignoring problems, but the next one will be harder to ignore.
During a field trip, one of the students had stolen money from the shop of an inn where they were staying. The teachers suspect that it was Ryu, who turns out to be the boy from the fight who looked at her. Being his teacher, Matsuko is protective of him. She is sent to talk to him. She tries to be gentle and tactful, but Ryu wants none of it and walks away. Desperate to avoid a major conflict, she decides sweep the whole incident under the rug. She tries giving money to the innkeeper and pretending that it was the stolen money, but that plan falls through when the innkeeper demands that Ryu apologize to him personally. At a one-on-one meeting with the head teacher, he agrees to keep the results of the incident a secret from the other teachers if Matsuko displays the depths of her penitence by showing her breasts to him. She hesitates, but complies after he yells at her.
Later, while she is standing outside ashamed and alone, another teacher approaches her, one whom she had a crush on. He tells her that the whole thing was an mistake by the innkeeper, though it is unclear whether that is true or whether that is part of the story that the head teacher told. He asks Matsuko out to go bowling with him. And like that, it is as if she is no longer a victim of humiliating workplace sexual misconduct. She is no longer alone. Matsuko is in love.
When Matsuko goes back home to her family, she tells her younger sister Kumi about him asking her out. Kumi is happy for her, but their father is upset at Matsuko for telling Kumi. Since Kumi is sick, and has been since childhood, she cannot enjoy such things that Matsuko takes for granted. Unable to take another of her father’s scolding, Matsuko yells that she has no sympathy for Kumi and goes riding far away on her bicycle.
She asks to talk with her teacher crush that night at a restaurant. She can barely talk about anything else but her daddy issues. Ever since she and her sister were children, their father had doted on Kumi, who was almost always bedridden, while Matsuko had struggled to even be noticed. On one of the rare times when the two of them were alone, a 7-year-old Matsuko found out that she could get a brief chuckle out of her father if she made a certain silly face. So she would make that face a lot, year after year. Even after he stopped laughing at it. By then, it had become a coping mechanism. Her date tells her that he is glad that she was able to open up to him, but he looks a little nervous behind his smile, especially when she refers to them as being together.
News of the theft reaches the school administration. Matsuko tries once more to get Ryu to confess, but he doesn’t. Forced into a corner, she inadvertently breaks out the silly face, shocking everyone, including her teacher crush. Having been forced to resign, she gets ready to run away from home. Kumi, having gotten out of bed, catches Matsuko packing up and tries to keep her from leaving. While many movies create sick younger sister characters to show the older character as loving and caring, Matsuko throws her sick younger sister to the floor and, in a fit of rage, tries to strangle her. Their mother catches her and Matsuko runs off. Kumi screams out in grief and guilt. Matsuko, once again, gets on her bike and goes far away. And that is the end of the first flashback.
So, I have just recapped the first twenty-eight minutes of a 130-minute movie. I was actually going to keep going until the end but, I actually don’t want to ruin the movie. In all honesty, if the first twenty-eight minutes of the movie sound like a misery-fest, then the rest of it will sound worse. And, yet, the movie isn’t like that. That is probably why I love it so much. How does it pull that off? I guess that I will have to go back at the beginning.
The first three minutes or so is disorienting and dizzying, bouncing back and forth between songs and characters whom we may or may not see again before suddenly becoming a sweeping epic rising from the water and flying amongst the birds. It gives the sense that there are so many stories that would be worth telling, but the movie picked this one to tell and is going to give it the full treatment. And while the movie never really returns to that constant back and forth, the movie does go sometimes go back and forth between difference scenes, switching suddenly into flashbacks and dream sequences. Perhaps without that barrage at the beginning, it would have been difficult to get used to the quick cuts throughout the rest of the movie. But I got used to it after a while. Everything is so vibrant, bursting with life and color, even during the bleakest of times. In other words: get the Blu-Ray. There is also quite a bit of bad CGI as well as some hand-drawn animation to give certain sequences an unreal fantastical quality, though I suppose that others may just call it fake. There is one scene where a bruised and near-suicidal Matsuko gets suddenly picked up by a group of Disney-looking birds. It is a little difficult to tell where the parody or homage ends and the genuine representation of Matsuko’s childlike dreams begin. This is also apparent during some settings that look like something out of a children’s show.
The portrayal of the characters is a mixed lot. A few are little more than running gags. The teacher who could have been Matsuko’s boyfriend is shown frequently adjusting his beltline and has this ridiculous sparkle to his teeth. Other characters are either simply archetypes or played up way over the top. A few of the characters do play their characters more subtly, though. And sometimes characters are subtle at one point and hammy at other times. It is a mix that could be seen as inconsistent, but I think of it as a nice balance.
Then there is the music. I am not an avid fan of musicals, but I have seen a few, even moreso once I started watching Bollywood movies. There is something about this movie, however, that seems a little different from what I am used to. A lot of the musicals that I have seen usually use the musical numbers to express emotions or harp on an idea or build up on a plot point. Here, there seems to be two different functions to the musical numbers. At some points, it serves as semi-diegetic background music to the scene while subtly commenting on it. For the most part, however, it serves to speed the story through a certain part of Matsuko’s life. This movie, for the most part, focuses on thirty-years of a person’s life, and skips only a few parts, so a few points have to be fast forwarded through. But these moments are usually huge parts of her life, one of them spanning eight years or so. There are no fixed set pieces to the segments, looking more like musical montages or music videos than the standard musical number. They are also not subject to time period, with one song towards the middle of the movie being blatantly anachronistic. There are original songs, but a few major ones are covers, such as the Japanese version of “Bend and Stretch” from the children’s show Romper Room. The lyrics are somewhat related to what is happening on screen, but never on the nose, so they could stand on their own outside of the movie. It is unclear whether the song-and-dance sequences are simply a stylistic choice of the movie or a depiction of how Matsuko relates to the world around her like in Dancer in the Dark, but it ultimately does not matter. They are good songs for the most part. And then a Michael Bublé cover song shows up for some reason.
I bring up the hyper-realistic aspect of this movie a lot because it is not just a stylistic choice, but a genuinely effective method of telling the story. This movie is based on a novel with a title that can be roughly translated as The Life of Despised Matsuko. It was also adapted into a Japanese television show. I saw snippets of the television show and it seemed, for the most part, to be more down-to-earth and more willing to dwell on the aspects of Matsuko’s life that the movie sped through. In all honesty, I could not really get into the show simply because it was a more realistic depiction of her life. It may have been a more respectful depiction, but I found it dull and dreary, tugging at heartstrings and wallowing in misery. There is pretty much no other way to realistically depict a story of a naïve girl with daddy issues desperately and miserably searching for love until she is brutally murdered, but it can be emotionally draining. At least for me. I would get more emotional attachment from watching a documentary on a real-life person than watching a realistic fictional tale. And, after a while, one might get too emotionally exhausted to care about a hopeless woman whose life was meaningless. The movie however, fills up her life with fantasy and wonder. It fills it with broad comedy and dark humor, with mystery and intrigue. It bounces back and forth between quiet and loud, between sparse and excessive, between melodrama and spoof, between glittering and garbage-strewn. We are in her mind or, at least, what her mind concocts. Or what Sho concocts for her. Sometimes, what is being witnessed on screen and how the movie presents it (even just through music) are so at odds with each other that it is difficult to figure out whether it is supposed to be ironic. I was so caught up in the style the first time that I was watching it that I had not realized how invested I actually had become in both the story and the character of Matsuko. But when it hit me, it hit me hard. The style actually is highly substantive. That is emotional manipulation at its finest.
The character of Matsuko is one whom it is easy to pity, but even easier to get frustrated with. In a movie with characters who can go over the top, Matsuko is like a force of nature, even as the forces of Man knock her down. Pretty much everything about her stems from her feelings about her father (like in many Asian movies that are not specifically about mothers, the mother is there, but barely has any presence). According to her, he had almost never displayed affection for her the way that he did for her sister; typical Japanese outward stoicism taken to an extreme. This led Matsuko to both desperately cling to anyone who showed her the least bit of affection and to lash out at those whom she felt were experiencing the type of love that she was missing. Both of these impulses lead to bad decisions. Her need to be loved and feel loved sometimes result in her getting into relationships with good men that get cut short, but more often trap her in relationships with men who neglect her or abuse her badly. At one point, she outright says that it is better to have a lover who beats her than to be alone. Additionally, her having run away takes a major toll on the family from which it never recovers, but she does not realize it because she is almost never there to witness the misery that she has caused them.
There are a couple of points in the movie where Matsuko is not either in a relationship or focused on someone to love, but they are relatively brief, save for near the end of her life when she completely falls apart. During those times, she seems lifeless, bored, adrift, and empty. Sort of like Sho. There is one point where, after a time of living a functioning life alone, when she has the opportunity to start a relationship with someone whom she knows is bad news. Deep down, she must know that she shouldn’t, but she also knows that she cannot live in apathy as she had. She makes her choice. Matsuko will risk wallowing in the lowest low for the chance to ride the highest high. She endures what she must, be it the mundane everyday or the depths of the criminal underworld. Or, at least, what she believes she must. She is, as a song not in this movie said, addicted to love. That she was never swept up into an actual cult must have been only because her attentions were laser-focused elsewhere whenever the opportunity came up.
Most frustrating of all about Matsuko is that she appears to have very little character growth. She undergoes many transformations in terms of looks and fashion during the thirty years, but her actual mindset does not change very much. She keeps doing the same thing and acting the same way, either not noticing or not caring that her situation is getting worse and worse. While she can live well and behave normally in circumstances that she deems stable, her underlying mental state leads her vulnerable to those who would take advantage. Sometimes she is self-aware, realizing what is going on, but it is only a setup for her to double down. Is that just a brief flash of clarity that she has to rationalize away or her true feelings breaking through the narrative that has had to craft for herself before the mask goes back up? It is never truly made clear. There is no real story arc for her, just a repetitive cycle of suffering. How Buddhist. There is one point in the movie where she realizes where her actions have taken her and does try to change her ways, but it is out of a sense of nihilistic despair rather than a desire to turn her life around. Matsuko repeatedly lets herself be taken advantage of, exploited, made an accessory to crimes, molded into what other people want her to be, chipped away at, beaten down, broken, torn apart, and neglected as long as she feels loved…even when it is a lie. Why doesn’t she accept a means of escape when it is offered? Why doesn’t she go on a killing spree? Why doesn’t she just run away from such mistreatment? Because she chooses it, welcomes it, embraces it. And she does it all for love. Is that romantic? Does that actually sound familiar? Does it hit too close to home? Is that the most horrible thing that you have ever heard?
It could be easy for some to be like Matsuko’s brother and dismiss her as pathetic, needy, and useless. Yet, the movie does not do so. One main in-story reason for this is that the story is sort of being told by Matsuko through her nephew, Sho. Yes, this may kind of rob Matsuko of her agency in telling her own story, but the movie is a little vague on which part is stuff that Sho is learning from others or imagining and what are things may be Matsuko speaking to him from the afterlife (there is another explanation given late in the movie, but I am not sure that it is a complete one). Sho, again, had just gotten dumped and feels lost. He has had no contact with his parents for two years and his father talks to him only to make sure that he had cleaned out Matsuko’s apartment. While his ex-girlfriend is off trying to make a new family for herself, Sho has no one. So he latches onto to this ghost of an aunt whom he never knew, but almost kind of recognizes. He finds a kindred spirit in her and starts to believe that, if he can find meaning in her meaningless life, then maybe his life can be thought of as worthy as well. After all, is not even the most miserable of us deserving of humanity? That is why this movie pulls out all the stops in telling her story, throwing in every bell and whistle that it can find. All of us should be allowed to have the grandest of movies to tell our stories, and this is hers. For a life so ugly, that is beautiful.
There are possibly several red flags that may have popped up immediately for you, even without me going into the details of the story (there is one part where Matsuko works at a Soapland “massage parlor” and it is far beyond the scope of my abilities to analyze the difference between the notions of prostitution in the East and West). For instance, what I said about how I prefer the fast and hyper-real treatment over the story over a more nuanced and realistic depiction in terms of entertainment and emotional investment does not address whether that is actually a good idea in the first place. Is it insensitive to treat such a story and character in such a manner, full of light humor and flights of fancy? Is it not just adding candy and rainbows to what should be a somber movie? All that stuff that I loved could merely be a distraction from the true despair. I have tried to state my personal take on this earlier, but that could perhaps say more about me as a consumer of entertainment than about the merits of the movie.
Another issue is the movie’s actual treatment of Matsuko the character and the message behind it. The sympathetic presentation of her character and her mindset may be nice and all, but the implication behind it may be that women need love more than anything else and that even abusive love is better than independence. While her life is occasional in peril, the movie does not show her to be psychologically trapped or afraid of the possible consequences of escaping. She is shown to be abused, but she refuses to see herself as an abuse victim. The movie sets up the interpretation that she is, but it does not really commit. In fact, she often actively pivots towards the danger rather than meekly accept it. She fears destruction at the hands of her lover far less than she fears the love-threatening anger that may make her lover want to destroy her. Certainly this is not a mindset that one should enable. Matsuko needs help, both environmentally and psychologically. And there is a character who genuinely tries to break through to her, but is unable to save her from her downward spiral.
There have been those who argue that the movie is catering to traditional conservative (Japanese) notions of the role of women and of femininity. That she is a woman who selflessly chooses to let the cruel world chip away at her until she is reduced to nothing instead of standing up for herself. Sho’s monologue extolling the generous and self-sacrificing virtues of his aunt in almost hyperbolic language (ignoring some of the heinous acts that she herself had committed against others) as he imagines watching her stumble around pathetically during her final hours alive can be used as evidence for this. All of the responsibility for her misery rests on her shoulders as opposed to the horrible people in her life or the society that trapped her in this mindset. Instead of criticizing the world for using her up and throwing her away, he holds her up as an ideal. She exists only to bring happiness to others, specifically to men, even when her actions invite their wrath. Even Sho, someone who does not know her and who is trying to see the inherent goodness within her, is just another man trying to find happiness through her suffering. And…maybe I am too. Is suffering for the enjoyment of other people what all entertainment is? Is that what life is?
I would like to say that the takeaway of the movie is more complex than that, particularly given some of Matsuko’s less noble actions and the involvement of one character in her life who did tried to help, but I do not really know the intentions of the filmmaker. I suppose that director Tetsuya Nakashima, who had done other lighthearted films like Kamikaze Girls as well as sentimental films like Paco and the Magical Book, could have instead, injected this movie with vengeful rage like in Confessions or just cynically macabre hatred like in The World of Kanako. But he didn’t. Was the novel different in its presentation and conclusions than the movie? The television show? Again, I don’t know. Nor do I know how the movie was received in Japan.
I believe that there are extenuating circumstances that make the movie more than just one thing. In fact, the movie can seem deliberately vague in terms of what is real and what is trying to be conveyed at times. That vagueness allows for multiple interpretations, but also makes it difficult for any single interpretation to completely work all the way through. The two issues that I have acknowledged are pretty much impossible for the film to properly address, let alone fix, without drastically changing it to the point that the whole thing might as well not exist in the first place. That said, I am not about to simply dismiss such criticism as if they have no validity, because that would be untrue. And although I have spent several paragraphs talking about a few troubling issues about the movie, other people could write with far more insight on issues that I barely touched upon or did not even bring up at all. So, while I love the film wholeheartedly, I can understand if others have major problems with it or even downright hate it. I respect that. Yet, while I can understand the criticisms, I cannot personally treat them as qualifiers to my own feelings about the movie. At least not yet.
To me, a movie like this should not be seen as a statement, but a series of questions. Because of the frequent clashes in tone, there are things left vague, unclear, and ambiguous. Are we simply supposed to accept what has been told and shown onscreen as what actually happened or what was meant to be? What does it mean for a person like Matsuko to have been able to or have been forced to live the way that she did? What does it say about how the world treated her? What does it say about how she treated the world? What does it say about love and self-worth? What does it say about mental health and loneliness? What does it say about family and personhood? Does it truly mean what it says about women and humanity? And even if it does mean that, does that mean that we have to take it that way? And was that really what it actually said? Does sympathy have to mean acceptance? Does acceptance have to mean approval? Are the troubling aspects sewn into the very fabric of the movie meant to be taken as they are presented or are they supposed to be looked at with a more analytical eye? Haven’t all of us felt lonely at some point, if not now? Haven’t we all struggled with the need to feel loved, to feel like we belong, to feel welcome, to feel like we have a home? Have these feelings led to bad decisions that you desperately tried to justify, sinking further into a sunk cost fallacy that you refuse to acknowledge could hurt you as well as complete innocents? Perhaps this is the only thing that prevents me from accepting that this as merely a movie with an abhorrent and harmful moral center. Perhaps I am also deluding myself to rationalize my feelings in the face of the brutally obvious.
Without spoiling too much of the movie’s ending, I want to talk about the final seven minutes before the closing credits. By this time, the pace has slowed down considerably as the story pretty much wraps up. The last few minutes are primarily much two sequences. The first has the camera flying over the riverbank, showing Matsuko at various stages of her life. There are quick cuts to flashbacks, but everything is so serene and dreamlike that it hardly seems as fast as it is. The focus is on her, either alone, or seeing other people. The final sequence turns that point of view around. It is unclear if this is a depiction of the supernatural (though some of Matsuko’s actions in the film render the scene’s symbolism somewhat unlikely), a complete fantasy, or a fantasy that includes a flashback to the last time (or maybe even the only time) that Matsuko was truly happy. In any case, it has Matsuko singing a song that she had sung a few times before in the movie. As she does, we see cuts to other people from the movie singing along. It shows that, regardless of how hopeless she may have been, there were dozens of people, maybe even hundreds of people, whose lives she had impacted in her meaningless life. Whether it was in a huge way or a small way. Whether it was brief or long-term. Whether these people were part of a group or individuals. She meant something, whether she realized it or not. She had brought happiness to them all, and left her mark upon their lives.
Her life, as miserable and pathetic as it was, did have meaning, significance, and love. Through callbacks to little repeated motifs that I had not noticed the first time around, the sequence helps to tie her life together and give it a new sense of importance. Again, the style of the movie gives it substance. It brings out the immenseness in the intimacy, the outstanding in the ordinary, the wide scope in the simplicity, and the triumph in the tragedy. Is this all a fake and hollow attempt at masking horror with happiness? Perhaps, but does that really matter in the end?
I have serious trouble watching this final scene even on its own without breaking out in tears. Even when I was typing this sentence, my eyes got a little wet. Seriously, this movie took me to the highest highs and the lowest lows. It whisked me away with beauty and wonder, only to chip away at me and leave me broken. And, yet, I keep coming back to it, knowing full well that the very same thing will happen to me. The risk is not so much what will happen, but whether I can endure it. What does that say about me and about all of the fans of the movie? Are we so masochistic that we will destroy ourselves by repeatedly watching someone destroy herself? Or is there something else? Is there something more wonderful within there that makes it all worthwhile and then some? I would say that there is. I cannot truly say what it is, but maybe it is love. A highly imperfect and devastating, but absolutely wonderful and passionate love. And through that love, the sadness from what is turns into the happiness of what it meant to us. How can I refuse that? I can see the complaints, the criticisms, and the cynical takes on the film and accept them as being perfectly valid and worthy of deep thought. And then I watch the movie again and embrace wholeheartedly it in its entirety, without reservations, happy that I did.
I don’t know what else I can say. Maybe I will have a little more later on, but I think that I have said all that I could. It was extremely difficult for me to articulate my feelings about it, but I have tried my best. When talking about this movie, I used to ask people to watch it at least twice before forming an opinion on it. I don’t do that anymore. The subject matter may be too infuriating and too painful. Even reading this write-up on the movie may have been a negative experience. But, if you think that you could stomach, then I would recommend that you try. Of course I would, for it is my favorite movie.
WTF ASIA 41: The Story of Nampu (Thailand: 1984. Approx. 135 minutes).
Free on Amazon Prime.
WTF ASIA 42: The Mission (Hong Kong: 1999. Approx. 81 minutes).