This is a hard film to process. I've seen some complete and utter shit being talked about it, while personally I came out saying I didn't think I understood it. Its plot's pulling it in one direction, while the storytelling style and visuals are pulling it in another.
These two directions are "utter grinding misery" and "super-saturated Technicolor Disney musical with animated tweety birds".
The story is straightforward enough. A young man (Eita) is pissing away his days in Tokyo on booze and porn. One day his father asks him to clean out the apartment of his recently murdered aunt, Matsuko (Miki Nakatani). By all accounts, she was a fat crazy old bag lady who lived in her own trash, but how did she get that way? Eita starts talking to people and the rest of the film tells her story.
It turns out that Matsuko's life was a stream of horror. She started out young, beautiful and always trying to do her best even as life kicked her violently in the teeth. This happens over and over again. As a teacher she takes the blame for stealing some money to protect one of her students and gets the sack for it. (She doesn't even like the student.) Her first boyfriend is a violent, mentally disturbed full-time writer (i.e. no job) who beats her, tells her to become a prostitute to support him financially and eventually commits suicide in front of her. You get the idea. What's more, the whole film's like that! It would almost be quicker to list the appalling things that don't happen. Hmmm. Are there any? Well, she never gets a terminal disease, although she does end up in hospitals for her mental problems, while her sister is more or less bedridden since childhood. She doesn't have horrible things happening to her children, but only because she never gave birth to any in the first place. Apart from that, I think she suffers everything.
It's so unrelenting that it could almost be comic... and it is, sort of. This is where we get into the filmmaking style.
Writer/director Tetsuya Nakashima is apparently known for his insanely candy-coloured films (e.g. Kamikaze Girls) and this is no exception. The nearest point of comparison I can find is the Thai acid western, Tears of the Black Tiger. You'll have sequences that are over-saturated, full of cartoon birds and/or taking Matsuko down the yellow brick road to the Wizard of Oz. Nakashima pays visual homage to his story's different decades (1960s, 1970s, etc.) with such enthusiasm that it's as if he's taking the piss out of them. Sometimes he'll do specific genre parodies, e.g. Women In Prison movies. And of course it's a musical. Matsuko sings. What's more, the other characters are aware of this, although quite often they too will be part of the musical number.
This makes for a paradoxical viewing experience. The film's fun. It's got entertainment value. I could even say I enjoyed it, despite the fact that by the end I was also getting emotional. This should have been gruelling, but it's being done with enough self-aware irony to make it very watchable. It ends with a fantasy musical medley in which all the people in Matsuko's past join in, as if all the periods of her life had been unified, at the end of which Matsuko walks up the stairs towards heaven (?) and is reunited with her dead sister.
So what the hell does it mean? I gave this some thought and the best I've been able to come up with involves Matsuko herself. You see, she believes in happy endings. She always focuses on her Prince Charming and the fairy tale Happily Ever After, which means that after every disaster she'll be telling us "I knew my life was over". Even when her latest boyfriend beats her and sends her out to become a whore or a criminal, she'll stick by him and do her best at her chosen role because They Love Each Other. Obviously she's delusional, but you can't say there aren't people who don't have a bit of that in them. I think this makes sense of the tweety birds. Nakashima's showing us the results of smacking a Disney movie attitude into the real world. It's saying "wake up, sister", basically.
Miki Nakatani does incredible work in the lead role. This should have been a hard character to care about. She's a good person, but she's also naive, deluded, overreacts to things and makes some catastrophically bad decisions. Nevertheless she's likeable. You're with her for the ride, right through to the end. I'd guess about 95% of actresses would have tripped my "I don't care" switch at some point, but Nakatani doesn't and that's a hell of a thing. Even when she's screaming abuse at her sick sister, you know she really loves her and it's an overreaction to a lifetime of her father's coldness.
This is an extraordinary film. Incidentally it was wildly popular in Japan and came to me with the highest recommendations. These were from women, by the way, in case you've been listening to some of the odder attempts at interpreting this film's message. I've been getting emotional just sitting here and remembering its events in order to write this review, but it's also a visual extravaganza that's fun to watch. Simply trying to process it afterwards is freaky. By the way, I think that post-mortem "stairway to heaven" ending is Matsuko's hard-earned Happily Ever After.