Shou (Eita) is starting to drift through life, giving up his band and reluctant to get a proper job as his girlfriend tells him she thinks they should break up because he is going nowhere fast, just drinking and watching porn videos all day. But one morning in 2001 he wakes up in bed with a start: his father is kneeling by him, and he has a proposition for his son, something for him to do instead of nothing much. It's the first Shou has heard of it, but apparently his father had an older sister who has recently died and was living as a hermit in a pokey apartment by the river, so what he has to do is clear out the place...
There is a tradition in certain kinds of movies, often of a more artistic bent, to feature a female lead character who suffers hugely for the whole two hours or so it takes the plot to be told then manages through that misery to attain a kind of transcendence so no matter ho badly she has ended the story, she has her moment of redemption, usually spiritual, to make up for it. Some of these works will be lauded as masterpieces such as The Passion of Joan of Arc, others will prove more divisive such as Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, but there remained something problematic in them, as if their ultimate fate compensated for a terrible life.
Matsuko, the aunt of the title, here played by Miki Nakatani, was one of those whose redemption was spiritual, because everything else that happened to her was the result of men having no idea of how to treat her with any respect or care, and her mental health takes a gradual downward turn which turns to a headlong plunge into utter madness the further she goes on towards her eventual murder, which is being solved as Shou works out the details of her existence. At first he is intrigued by the curious photograph of his aunt that was among the heap of her effects, where she is a teenager pulling a very strange expression, but in flashback every question we have about her is answered eventually.
This might sound like a sombre mope through tragic circumstances, but actually director Tetsuya Nakashima took a different approach, so yes, this was a depressing tale, but he wasn't going to let that stop him creating a wild and exuberant musical out of it. The tunes by Gabriele Roberto and Takeshi Shibuya are really catchy in a pop fashion, presented like the music videos of the day with diversions into more traditional styles Westerners might recognise from Hollywood, but also present a tone which is pulling in two directions at once. Nakashima was no stranger to elaborate setpieces, but applying them to a life which we are told was essentially "meaningless" was a choice which kept proceedings interesting.
Was Matsuko's life as pointless as is said or was being the punching bag of everyone she encountered - sometimes literally - an end in itself? From her childhood where her father dotes over her infirm sister yet barely has a kind word for our heroine, hence the only way she can get a smile out of him is to pull that face, to her career as a schoolteacher which is thwarted when she tries to make excuses for a criminal pupil out of the kindness of her heart and is punished for it, the universe certainly appears to have it in for Matsuko, and the worse things get for her the worse she reacts, even being on the receiving end of violence and giving it out in return. But as bad as this can be, she always has her idealised fantasy life to fall back on, as the only way she can cope with these terrible men in her life who cannot reciprocate her decency is to lose herself in the musical numbers. In the wrong hands this could have appeared spiteful, yet such was the busy, empathetic technique Nakashima employed it was more an indictment of cruel society than a wallow in punishing the protagonist, crucial to the final impression: Matsuko had worth.