Memory and Desire

Memory and Desire shows the way of inner change, the effect of big dreams, where tremendous inner images and journeys may hardly appear on the surface.

Memory and Desire: A woman in search of her soul

by Helen Frances

In a motel shower a young woman presses her naked body along the knobbled surface of the glass door. Like a fish, gently mouthing the wall of an aquarium, she kisses and licks the glass, her lips forming small, soft, pink, ovals on the pane. Her lover is fascinated and joins her on the other side of the glass, following and matching her moves and rhythm. He pulls the door aside and they try again to consummate their recent marriage.

A few weeks later back in Tokyo, Sayo, the young wife, returns in memory to this scene following the funeral of her husband, Keiji. Entering a metro carriage she presses her hands, breasts and lips to the window glass, an image of intense grief and longing. Her ensuing journey back to New Zealand, to the shore and cave where she lost Keiji, is a journey of expiation and reconciliation shown through powerful, natural images that are at once intimate and personal and common to human experience .

Memory and Desire shows the way of inner change, the effect of big dreams, where tremendous inner images and journeys may hardly appear on the surface. I loved the emotional depth and sensitivity of Nikki Caro’s film. The images and music are simple and suggestive, inviting the kinds of associations which recognise the gods, the powers that shape human lives.

As does a big dream, the film lends itself to a Jungian understanding of the imagery, symbols and relationships. It could be read as two cultures dreaming shadow aspects of the other; as a dream of a woman’s rite of passage through grief and a coming into an enlarged sense of self and inner freedom; as a dream where the characters are images of complexes, archetypes, parts of a dynamic whole. It is a very moving human tale and I see it as one of this country’s most emotionally authentic, films.

Memory and Desire is based on a short story by Peter Wells, inspired by an event reported in a South island newspaper. A Japanese woman in her forties was found living in a cave in 1979, four days walk from the nearest store, on a beach on Stewart Island at the southernmost tip of this country.

The film opens in a cave beside the sea where a woman sighs with desire in the arms of her lover. The sighs, like waves, move with the camera out to the ocean which, shortly after, claims his life. The film then moves back and forth between the lush, wild landscapes of New Zealand bush, thermal regions and coastline and the crowded, denatured environment of Tokyo.

The main protagonists, Sayo and Keiji meet as colleagues in the office in Japan. She is a secretary, at 28, as she says, "a Christmas cake" – "distasteful, inedible past the 25th". He, an up and coming manager, is younger, quiet, gentle and unformed. Sayo appears at ease in body and soul, genuine and spontaneous – an image of emotional fullness, the potential of soul that is hinted at in Keiji’s personality and which he must long to join in himself.

Keiji has been living at home with his mother, a traditional, rigid character and a widow of many years, who disapproves of his liaison with an older woman from a lower social class. Sayo herself has lost her mother and her father has been living with a second "wife’. Mrs Nakajima, Keiji’s mother, appears at times as a witch figure who tries to control her son. She drops poisoning comments into her first meeting with Sayo and the potential for a deadly love triangle between the mother, her son and his lover is set in motion. Mrs Nakajima later "curses" their plans to marry and the two lovers secretly plan and carry out a wedding and bus tour honeymoon in New Zealand. Here they move in the liminal world of a foreign land and culture whose mores are different, freer than their own. This is also the world of the changed status of their relationship and the permission to be sexual, to behave instinctually in a world of wide open spaces full of live, uncontrolled nature which they find so disturbing at times - such a contrast to the hotel room in Tokyo bedecked with tame ferns, fountains and leopard skin bed covers where Keiji had proposed marriage to Sayo.

The Japanese tourist bus is a collective image through which the other travellers provide a caricatured, Mikado like backdrop of Japanese masculinity and femininity and the relationships between the sexes. Another young couple are honeymooning. He is a macho type with no connection to his wife other than his penis. He boasts of his conquests to Keiji in the dressing rooms while his young wife tells Sayo they don’t communicate and how she longs for a child to have someone to talk to. The superficial, culturally prescribed relationship of the other couple emphasizes the tragedy that unfolds between Keiji and Sayo and underlines the theme of Eros, of the wounded feminine and of woman’s need for personal empowerment and fulfillment in relationship. Empowerment and the capacity to be potent in relationship comes through the ability to relate to the contrasexual image within oneself and to be open to shadow aspects of personality.

The scene where the young "stud" wrestles a ram by the horns and rides it, is both funny and significant in terms of imagery and symbol around the issues of male potency, impotence and images of maleness. The animal scene is like a dream image of a complex – the issue that has "got his goat", although he seems confident he has got on top of this one. The young man is totally identifed with the raw, unrefined virility of the ram and he displays this provocatively to the delight of his audience - Three Little Maids from school, passengers on the bus. The ram is also an aspect of Christ1., the saviour, the masculinity that Keiji needed to wrest for himself from the clutches of the Mother complex.

Sayo and Keiji discover that he cannot consummate their marriage. Through sparse dialogue and detached, rapid movement between scenes, the camera witnesses the couple’s desperate anguish. Gripped, emasculated by his connection to the mother Keiji seems frozen in some way, awkward, still a boy, not knowing how to meet his partner’s passion. In an intimate, sexual relationship with a woman Keiji also needs to be conscious of himself as a man. When encouraged to be himself while Sayo videos him, Keiji does hand stands as he did for his mother when a child at the beach.

Letting go the mother, along with the security of childhood and the cultural definition of masculinity equates with death for Keiji (intrapsychically, the death of a younger version of the masculine). The couple choose to follow Sayo’s wish to go to the beach rather than buy souvenirs for Keiji’s mother. Wearing a shirt printed with sea designs and red fish, Keiji does hand stands on the beach for the last time. The designs, as on the garment of an initiand, connects with the symbolism of liminality and the process of change that can happen in times of great stress, where a lowering of the threshold of consciousness makes strange things happen. This is the process of return to the Mother, to the great sea of the uroboros, where an earlier form of being is dissolved, to be followed by a return in a state more accessible to consciousness, bringing redemption or resolution.

Keiji disappears from the cave and is swept back like an unconscious content (fish) to the source of life and death. His body is found washed up on the shore by fishermen, and the wedding ring is retrieved from the sand.

Sayo returns to Japan with the body and buys a sheep from a souvenir shop to give to Keiji’s mother – the gift he never bought. Alone in her room the mother weeps, showing her natural mother’s depth of feeling for the first time. The ewe, the feminine and Christ - lamb of god, at the opposite pole to the ram, relates through gentleness, concern and compassion. So what happens for a woman when qualities of ewe (or lamb) and ram combine in a man. An answer emerges through the simple fisherman, a shadow counterpart of the Japanese city dwellers.

Driven to the edge by grief at the loss of her husband, (her last chance at married status in Japanese society), Sayo returns from Japan to the cave. Here she enters a cocoon state contained within a natural womb, a space of transformation – a more differentiated, grounded, form of the feminine than the sea and an image of her personal strength through connection to the archetype. The madness of her extreme grief takes her outside social norms, below the threshold of consciousness where she submits to an excruciating experience. High seas, rushing waves and rain reflect her inner turmoil as she wanders the shore gathering dead birds and wood for the fire. Through the intense suffering she endures, Sayo shows a strength of body, soul and spirit to bear an experience that goes beyond the personal and speaks to us all.

The fisherman who observes her pain leaves fish for Sayo to eat. Starving, she eats the flesh raw straight from the carcase (an image of integrating unconscious elements) and gags. A distressing, raw ‘insight’ accompanies this act and she cries

"Did I force my appetite on him? It was my hunger for him that drove him away".

To the viewer this assumption of guilt seems excessive. What is this guilt and where does it come from? The issue is generational and collective and Sayo, like other suffering, figures in myth and religion, is working through something in her personal life which has much larger implications.

The fisherman, a saviour image, is a positive animus figure who guides the way to transcendence i.e. the next stage and helps a woman connect with her soul2.. He brings to light messages from the deeps (fish), moving with mercurial ease between land and sea. Navigator of currents and tides, all moods and weathers of the ocean, he relates to the unconscious, to the emotional, imaginal realm of the primordial feminine. He meets Sayo’s female desire with a male’s passion and compassion, loving her as she is – filthy and crazed with grief and longing. Sayo sees Keiji in the fisherman’s face and, as do dreams, the experience brings healing. The fisherman later returns the wedding ring while she sleeps, returning the spirit of her dead lover so he may rest in peace in her soul. The circle is closed and Sayo is free to return to an ordinary life.

Outside the cave the tide has receded uncovering an expanse of sand – an image of the ground she has gained. Sayo releases the video of their wedding and honeymoon back into a calm sea, letting Keiji go along with her need for the social status and borrowed power of being a married woman. Marriage and empowerment has been achieved within.

"He was sending me away and I knew I could go to a life in Tokyo with a memory of him inside me".

Back in Tokyo, Sayo stands in the crush of a metro carriage. She looks out the window and, no longer trapped in her longing behind the glass, the memory of sea and sky from a New Zealand shore opens out across the screen…

© Helen Frances. 2000
Helen Frances.


1. Sanford, John A. The Invisible Partners: How the Male and Female in each of Us Affects Our Relationships, Paulist Press, 1984

2. Chevalier, Jean and Alain Gheerbant Dictionnaire des Symboles: Mythes, Reves, Coutumes, Gestes, Formes, Figures, Couleurs, Nombres, Robert Laffont, 1982

Memory and Desire: New Zealand 1998; Cannes Festival 1998

Director/Screenplay: Niki Caro
Producer: Owen Hughes
With: Kinugawa Yuri, Eugene Nomura, Narahashi Yoko, Joel Tobeck, Terada Shiori
89 minutes

NTSC video available from Owen Hughes, PO Box 46065, Herne Bay, Auckland, New Zealand $US 50