It's quite obvious why these films were grouped together, since they all deal with the subject matter of Uno Kawase, the grandmother of director Naomi Kawase, who had actually been the one (with the grandfather, who passed away when she was 14) providing her care since Naomi's parents left her under their charge. The first three films were made in the mid 90s and shared a similar look and feel, while the last installment, Birth/Mother, was made recently, and really was starkly different in tone.
In a tribute to her grandmother, Naomi Kawase's Katatsumori had her firmly in the camera sights in a tribute to her and the relationship and special bond that they share. Primarily we see the grandmother gardening and showing us her excellent green fingers. While it’s less of a Q&A style, Naomi just captures a slice of her everyday life, and their lives together as at a point in time they interchange roles and Uno Kawase gets behind the camera. There were plenty of shots that take place in the garden, and many lingering ones, so much so that Grandma actually pleaded with Naomi to turn the camera off.
It’s easy to see that she’s quite uncomfortable to be in the limelight, or having the camera pointed so in her face. But these extreme close ups somewhat serve a point, as if to document and wanting to remember every line of wrinkle Uno has, in an affectionate way. It’s akin to the notion of pea growing, where the filmmaker and her subject are like two peas in a pod, in a motif spread over a season of growth that this documentary takes place in.
Besides the usual interactive scenes, there were also some shots of old photographic stills of Uno in action, against the backdrop of the perpetual whirr of the camera. And fittingly, this medium length film ended with Uno’s rather rhythmic snores at nighttime.
See Heaven continues along similar veins, except that the relationship is now more pronounced, in having the two of them collaborate and sharing scenes together. This 10 minute movie however had a rather dramatized, unflinching shot of the grandmother burning trash (or what seemed to be trash), and that went on almost like forever almost like a silent movie. There is still the same narrative composition of the grandmother tending to her garden (which seemed to be staple, by the way), and this rather experimental movie got bookend by sunrise and sunset.
In the third part of the series shot in yearly succession, Setting Sun felt a lot like Katatsumori Part Deux, except that it really felt like it’s the same movie all over again. With the perpetual whirr of the camera as before, there was a revisit to some of the areas featured before, and some shots, just like the dripping tap, got recycled here again. We get faced with the same protests by Uno Kawase not to shoot her up close too, as the composition of her shots still preferred to want to etch the memory of her face permanently to the audiences mind.
The narrative here got compartmentalized into sections without narration and dialogues in the later half, and although it seemed like a throw back to the first film, I did connect with it for its simple opening with the resonance of the term “See you”, instead of “Good bye” in a bid to farewell. Like the Chinese term “Zai Jian”, I thought it was always more meaningful to use the term because it has a connotation of wanting to meet again, somewhere, sometime, unless of course one’s intention was good riddance, then a curt “bye” would suffice.
When it come to Birth / Mother, everything that we’ve seen got thrown out the window. This was starkly very different, and was like a tale in 2 halves, the first an overbearing grief hanging over it, while the second had glimmers of hope. If you think that the earlier close ups were difficult to endure with people’s faces breaching personal comfort zones, this one had close ups of even more private regions up close, and the cordial nature dissipated when Naomi berated her grandmother about using a term on her which had deeply upset.
It’s unlikely that this was staged, though it was very difficult to fathom how one could have shot the sequence. While you can sense the foundational love for the other person was there, the surface ripped away some form of dignity, making one person confess, in camera no less, about possible misdeeds, and the seeking of forgiveness. I thought it was rather sad as I witnessed the more confrontational styled interview questions, which had become a lot more pointed.
Uno Kawase is visibly aged as she approached her 90s, and while the protests are no longer documented (perhaps cut?) there’s a sense of resignation to being made to appear in the movie, and I wonder how Naomi found the heart and the strength to bore down the documentary in the way that she did, since we learn for the first time today that it was Uno who actually brought her up. Also, the camera probably captured the last few days of Uno’s live on earth, as I stand amazed at how the camera still found itself to be rolling in an ambulance en route to the hospital. Staged? Deliberate? I do not know. One thing’s for sure though, is that the power of film allowed Uno Kawase to be immortalized for posterity despite her absence, and as seen in the previous movies, came back to life again on the big screen through a capture of memories in the documentaries.
The second half of the film moved away from this grief, and from death we moved to life, as we bear witness to Naomi’s own birth of her child Mitsuki, watching without flinching from the screen, how she came to this world. I would think that this process would probably be not without excruciating pain, and for the segment of the film, the audio was turned off to spare the audience the loud decibels. It was literally watching the proceedings head on.
Two different themes, on opposite ends of the spectrum, made Birth / Mother an exploration of thems such as life and death, and family, with Naomi Kawase unselfishly bringing very personal issues out to the open, in attempts to share with everyone her experiences and opinions, though at times during some of the films as mentioned in this series, unless you’re in the know, you may find some portions of it bewildering, as if not privy to some inside information.