Comedy, Drama, Films, Japan, Reviews

Memories of Matsuko / Kamikaze Girls

An astounding visual mash-up of pop cultural references, welcome to the work of director Tetsuya Nakashima…

Movie lovers are in for a real treat as not one but two films by the highly individual Japanese director Tetsuya Nakashima are to be released next week. Using a visual mash-up of luridly kitsch pop cultural iconography from the theatrical 40s and cinemascope of the 50s, from swinging and psychedelic 60s to MTV powered music videos, and from Anime to Disney, Tetsuya has made a name for himself as a highly creative auteur.

Kamikaze Girls, originally a novel by Nobara Takemoto then a manga, tells of Momoko (Kyoko Fukada, Angel, Ring 2), a 17 year-old girl obsessed with Rococo period France and so self-absorbed she finds it difficult to relate to the world around her. Kitted out in the faintly disturbing ‘Lolita’ fashion from her favourite store (yes, there really is a ‘Baby, The Stars Shine Bright’ store in the Shibuya neighbourhood of Tokyo!) she lives with her father, a failed yakusa, and grandmother in a suburban backwater of Japan.

Selling off her father’s old and very fake Versace gear, she meets ‘Yanki’ biker chick Ichigo (Anna Tsuchiya), and the two strike an unlikely friendship as they embark on an odyssey of sorts, underpinned by cultural references and a J-Pop score (not to mention one confrontational scene played out to Johan Strauss’ Blue Danube).

There’s more than a hint of Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World to Tetsuya’s film, its female protagonists very much outsiders to social conventions, but if anything the film stays more upbeat. Which can hardly be said for Memories Of Matsuko. based on the novel by Muneki Yamada, it which tells a touching yet tragic tale of one woman’s life (played by Miki Nakatani, Ring 2, When The Last Sword Is Drawn), beginning in the 1950s to the 21st Century, as pieced together by the nephew she never knew, Shou (Eita, Azumi)

Labelled a wasted life by his father, Norio (Teruyuki Kagawa, Sukiyaki Western Django, Twentieth Century Boys), Shou soon finds out his Aunt’s life was far from uneventful. From neglected child, through adult life, discredited as a school teacher, to a massage parlour girl, a murderer, a prison inmate, a yakuza moll and, finally, a mentally disturbed bag lady, Shou discovers the heartbreaking truth.

An epic tribute to an ordinary life, Memories of Matsuko deliberately references the Technicolor saturation of Gone With The Wind, even down to the opening titles. At times it’s overwhelming, as Tetsuya fills the screen with references and even musical numbers filmed reflecting the period, but towards the second half it slows to a more contemplative pace, as the tale can no longer maintain such a flippant tone.

More tragicomedy than comedy, it’s a beautiful testament to the importance of any life, a sympathetic and ultimately poignant picture. Writing his own screenplays, Tetsuya seems able to convincingly get under the skin of his feisty, non-conforming or even just well-rounded female characters. (Which may be just as well, since there seems to be something of a lack of female Japanese directors to do the same.)

It’s no surprise to find comparisons made to filmmakers like Tim Burton (he shares a gothic innocence), Baz Luhrmann (for the scale of his musical numbers) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (for the idiosyncratic worlds and characters he creates). He reflects the freedom of Japanese directors like Takeshi Miike – The Happiness Of The Katakuris springs to mind with it’s J-pop numbers and karaoke scene – yet is far more consistent and less messy as a result. It also brings to mind Park Chan-wook’s I’m A Cyborg, but again is better concieved. Tetsuya  seems to lack the pretention of many of his peers, who often forget that a film is meant foremost to entertain an audience, not just themselves.

Unsurprisingly Matsuko has been acclaimed internationally, and was nominated for nine Japanese Academy Awards. Both films are astonishing pieces of work and highly entertaining – let’s hope we’ll see more releases by this director in the UK soon…

Kamikaze Girls is released on two-disc DVD and Blu-ray from 8 February 2010.

Home media details

Kamikaze Girls (Special Edition two-disc DVD)

Distributor: Third Window (UK)

Little more than a year after it's original UK release, Third Window are back with a special edition packed with bonus features.

As well as a new, 5.1 surround sound audio track, the second disc includes additional interviews, an extensive 40-minute 'making of' featurette, workprint footage, the original trailer, an Anna Tsuchiya music video AND the short film 'The Birth of Unicorn Ryuji' – a bizarre telling of the origin of Ryuji unique hair.

All of which makes for a superb, essential release of the film – and hopefully spells good things for future Third Wind releases.

About the author

Andrew Heskins
Founder of easternKicks.com, which he's been running since 2002. And it's all thanks to Monkey, Water Margin and those damn fantastic 80s Hong Kong action movies! Andy works as a graphic designer in London... More »
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