My introduction into Yoji Yamada's cinematic world is through his famed and recent Samurai Trilogy with The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade and Love and Honor. I had enjoyed all three films, and looking at the prolific, veteran director's filmography, I think it'll take me a very long while to watch all his films, especially the Tora-san series. Needless to say when Kabei Our Mother has finally reached our shores, I jumped at the chance to watch what would be an ode to Mothers everywhere, celebrating their innate love for their children.
Based on the autobiography of Teruyo Nogami, Kabei - Our Mother tells of a close knit family of four – Mother Kayo “Kabei” (Sayuri Yoshinaga), Father Shigeru “Tobei” (Mitsugoro Bando), eldest daughter Hatsu (Mirai Shida) and youngest child Teru (Miku Sato). From the get go their lives would be changed forever, when Shigeru gets arrested under the Peace Preservation Law for his morally controversial writings against the nation, set in the late 30s where Japan had begun their “crusade” in China, and thereafter their participation in WWII.
So begins Kabei's struggle to hold down jobs to feed her family, and the frequent, difficult meetings with her husband behind bars. Help comes from relatives, especially on Shigeru's side, since Kabei's own dad had adopted an "I told you so" attitude with her choice of spouse. Shigeru's one time student Yama (arthouse buffs should recognize Tadanobu Asano here) provides laughter as a bumbling man who slowly becomes confidante and surrogate guardian to the children, and Kabei's sister in law Hisako (Rei Dan) from Hiroshima, which I believe would have sounded some hindsight alarm bells as to her unfortunate fate as the film progresses through its timeline.
While the film centers primarily on how the kids are growing up under the presence of their mom, and in a distant relationship with their dad, what I enjoyed is how the microscopic family events unfold under the macroscopic worldwide events that have impacted on the common folk in Japan. It's against the historical backdrop of Japan's push to regional dominance, and there are characters here that don't mask those ambitions, even discussing what the country would eventually do should it be successful in holding onto conquered lands. This is something I rarely see in Japanese films, being that frank in their discussion of that era, and also to get a glimpse of how the common man have to struggle against domestic issues made all the more difficult with resources channeled toward the war effort.
The actresses casted here are pitch perfect in their delivery and roles, be they the veterans or the child actors. Actress Sayuri Yoshinaga deserves special mention for her role as the motherly figure who has to dig deep and find that inner strength to carry the household through under trying circumstances, while Mirai Shida and Miku Sato are lovable as the understanding children who have to learn to make do and compromise. Each scene with the three of them together just makes it heart wrenching when the going gets tough, or fill your heart with Joy should they be celebrating. Before long you'll soon find yourself being attracted to want to be part of this family, thanks to the primary cast's powerful performances, with Yoji Yamada coaxing some really natural performances from the kids.
Kabei - Our Mother boasts some stunningly beautiful art direction, and is classy in its delivery of both happy and sad moments without going over the top, or relying on cheap melodrama to cheapen the emotions it seeks from the audience. There are plenty of little things here done right which makes it pitch perfect, with every scene not being wasted, and with every nuance very meaningful in conveying its message across, be it compassion or love.
Aside from the very abrupt ending (I had hoped that it could have continued for a lot more, despite its more than 2 hours runtime), Kabei Our Mother comes highly recommended, and you'll find it difficult to be holding back either your tears, or that thought about your own mom and her sacrifices she makes for you on an everyday basis. Just what those sacrifices are should you need another reminder, then the scene during the end credits roll will remind you of the stuff that you'd probably have taken for granted.