One of the recent greats of Japanese cinema is director Yoji Yamada, the same director responsible for award winning films such as "Twilight Samurai", "Hidden Blade" and "Love and Honor". I loved Yamada's take on the samurai period, they had a powerful sense of humanity that felt very real and sincere. When I heard about his latest film I eagerly awaited its release on dvd, thankfully the film is also being released as part of a limited International film festival and I also managed to acquire an official imported copy. "KABEI OUR MOTHER" (2007) is a melodrama based on the real life story of Kayo Nogami, a strong woman who lived during wartime Japan. It is a nominal tear-jerker and is a compelling look at her life, her trials and her strengths.
Nogami Kayo (Yoshinaga Sayuri) and her husband Shigeru (Bando Mitsugoro) affectionately called "Kabei" and "Tobei" ( a variation of the Japanese words o-KA-san for mother and o-TO-san for father) by their daughters form a humble and happy family in 1940's Japan. Everyone in the family has their `pet names' and their daughters' names Teruyo and Hatsuko abbreviated to Teru-bei and Hatsu-bei. Shigeru is a scholar and he wrote several essays that are a little controversial and may be deemed as "rebellious" by some due to its non-conformity. One evening, Shigeru is arrested for political reasons and what authorities call "thought-crimes". Kayo is left to attend to the family's needs with the war looming in the Pacific. In these difficult times, Shigeru's frazzled, kindhearted student Yamasaki Toru (Todanobu Asano, Ichi the Killer) shows up at Kayo's doorstep to offer his aid. Yamasaki develops a strong bond with Kayo, her daughters and their aunt, Hisako (played by beauteous Rei Dan). Kayo stands us a pillar of silent strength through the family's years during war and strife, taking each challenge one by one and overcoming each one through her spirit. But not even a woman of Kayo's strength can anticipate where her heart lies and destiny would lead.
Director Yoji Yamada's approach to the film is very subtle but it never relents on its narrative and emotional impact. The social effects of war are represented in the film, but Yamada represents this through the situation itself and through his characters rather than from a point of view. The direction avoids registering any disapproval of the war and it brings its characters into exposition rather than its historical context. The effects of one's opinions, on what is seen and heard is subtly touched upon by the script as well as some changes that may affect regular people. Some characters do express their disapproval of Japan's war-fueled nationalism, and the films unfold in a manner that demonstrates the cost on the civilians during war.
The film's main circumstance come from the sacrifices of its main characters and they are defined through such acts of courage. Kayo is often faced with fights she cannot win, but she stays her coarse, staying silent and subservient to avoid further confrontations with authorities. The script co-written by Yamada (along with Haramatsu Eriko and Teruyo Nogami) keeps its focus around its human traits, which is why it remarkably succeeds in establishing a subtle anti-war message that is entrenched in its characters. It also shows the changes that happen within one individual, and how one's life experiences can affect one's outlook either for the better or for the worse. The screenplay is definitely against the Japanese government's handling of the war, but when it expresses its message through its characters, they are portrayed in a manner that is quite effective; the characters sidestep the temptation of becoming political mouthpieces by letting the situation and the way they deal with their trials speak louder. Every director should take notes from Yamada, he allows his characters and their hardships define their story rather than relying on any overdone speeches dressed up with sugar-coated emotion--such approaches are so overdone in Hollywood.
At first impression, "Kabei Our Mother" may seem like a regular story as to how one woman defied the odds and fights the good fight. Kayo is a very sympathetic character in the film; as she is confronted with certain things that made an impact in her family's life. The war, unjust authority figures, and the hardships brought about by certain situations are nicely exposed. The first thought would be to feel sympathy and respect since Kayo is forced into a situation that she has to overcome illness and her situation grows worse as the film goes on. The film's point is brought into fruition, but the viewer has to remember that while Kayo takes on pressing emotionally extreme matters based on an unavoidable circumstance, she also confronts the burdens of her personal desires, needs, hopes and dreams all for the sake of duty, responsibility and motherly love. This was exceedingly represented in the scenes with her spiteful father, and her scenes with daughters.
The acting is phenomenal. Yoshinaga Sayuri bears her soul for the film, her acting is awe-inspiring; look into her eyes, you will see a woman exhausted to the limit but you see that she does the best she can, neither complaining or expressing her pain. One note-worthy scene is Kayo's first visit to her husband, as she witnesses the boils brought about by filthy surroundings. Yoshinaga Sayuri portrayed her character with finesse and powerful dramatic impact however simple the scene may be. As emotionally charged the film was, The film doesn't forget to have a very subtle sense of humor; Todanobu Asano is entertaining with his occasional deadpan humor and the black sheep uncle also had his moments to pitch in some comedy. Yamada also manages to keep things simple; the film has very strong emotional scenes, but never for one minute did he succumb to become dangerously close to becoming too drenched in sentimentality. The direction kept its shots simple, with the occasional close-ups and slow pans to express emotion. The film's cinematography is also beautiful but nothing too elaborate. The set designs are nicely done and accurate; with colors leaning towards Earth colors.
The film's powerful significance come from its portrayal of sacrifices, and its strong humanity makes "Kabei Our Mother" a worthwhile film. It portrays its characters with strong depth with a touch of understandable remorse kept inside. The film's final scene delivers a overwhelming conclusion in exposing Kayo's choices--even those born of love and duty are not reaffirming of traditional values or even redemptive in nature. Usual tear-jerkers rely on expected emotion, but Yamada takes us by surprise by avoiding such mainstream expectations. The final scene does not affirm any positive views and doesn't make it seem like all of Kayo's sacrifices were necessarily worth it. There's a quiet, powerful, bittersweet theme attached that while no one is to blame, everyone is responsible--sometimes the honorable choice isn't necessarily the correct one to fit life. Sometimes, situations change and people change, and we carry a burden of regret that we cannot share until our end; it's what makes "KABEI OUR MOTHER" an accomplished, compelling work in cinema; it is marvelously glorious yet so terribly sad. Potentially inadequate with decades of regret and unpredictably uplifting--sometimes that's the way life plays out.
HIGHEST POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATION! [5 Stars]
Video/Audio: 1.77 ratio anamorphic widescreen. The picture is clean and sharp, the colors are a little muted and similar to other Japanese film transfers that lean towards Earth colors. The 5.1 Japanese Dolby digital sound is clear and fits this type of film. The Subtitles are perfectly timed and well-translated.