Though born way back in 1931, Yamada Yôji, after directing 41″Tora-san” movies, emerged as the Ichikawa of the third millennium—at least its first decade. Although not showing the same characters, the three revisionist samurai movies — “The Twilight Samurai” (2002), “The Hidden Blade” (2004), “Love and Honor” (2006) — are thematically related in showing samurai more interested in life and love than in death and honor.
His 2008 film “Kabei: Our Mother” shows the heroism of the wife of an anti-imperialist philosopher detained in 1940 for “thought crimes.” One of these is calling the invasion of China a “war” rather than an “incident” (though “crusade” would be OK). The often kindly chairman of his neighborhood association explains that the alliance with Nazi Germany is a step toward world domination. After the US and the UK are taken care of jointly (this is 1940, not 1942), Japan will take on and conquer Germany. He has not the slightest doubts in Japan’s manifest destiny… though he cannot decide which way the committee should bow when the Emperor is away from his main Tokyo palace.
There is no need to tell, to comment, just showing the indoctrination to which Yamada himself must have been subjected does just fine. The story of Nogami Teruyo’s childhood (she is nine when her father is tied up and taken away by the police at the start of the movie) shows her mother, whom the family calls “Kabei” (Yoshinaga Sayuri) struggling to maintain the morale of her jailed husband, Nogami Shigeru, whom the family calls “Tobei” (Bando Mitsugoro) and vulnerable daughters, twelve-year-old Hatsu (Shida Mirai) and nine-year-old Teru (Sato Miku). She is aided by a loyal former student of her husband, the awkward Yamazaki (Asano Tadanobu, closer to his role as “Last Life in the Universe” than to Ganghis Khan in “Mongol” or the fierce workingman in “Hana”), who is very myopic and blind in one ear.
Although I don’t think that it needed to take 133 minutes, nothing springs to mind to cut. Well, the voiceover over the closing credits, but that would not affect the running time… Maybe some of the singing could have been shortened, though it is always showing something about the situation of the family and/or the nation.
The film is shot with restraint, often from an Ozu-like height (probably the eyelevel of the nine-year-old, as well as that of an adult kneeling on the floor) by Naganuma Mutsuo (who also shot “The Twilight Samurai” and “The Hidden Blade” for Yamada, and Shintaro’s “Zatôichi”).
In close-ups during the movie, I thought that Yoshinaga was old for the part (and confirmed that she was born in 1945: so that she would have been 54 when Teru was born and is eleven years older than Bando, who plays her husband), but she is so compelling as a frail but resolute reed pillar of the family that I got past that. (Mrs. Miniver did not have such youngsters to try to protect and did not have to deal with the opprobrium of treason with which her father and neighbors viewed her absent husband.) BTW, Yoshinaga’s distinguished career included playing the title roles of Ichikawa Kon’s “Ohan” in 1984 and “Tsuru” in 1988. She won best actress awards from the Japanese Academy for both.
In addition to Yama, she is aided by her sister-in-law (who eventually returns to Hiroshima). And Kabuki’s very blunt brother also stays for a while, though the only sense in which he helps out is in making it possible for Kabei to speak frankly, which she cannot otherwise do anywhere, even at home.
More chilling even than the official name of the sedition law (“Peace Preservation”) is Tube’s mentor who views it as a bad law but prefers bad laws to no laws and says that the law will decide whether Tobei is a criminal (that is, won’t say he is no criminal). In that sequence, as in a dinner with Kabuki’s police chief father, women attempt to soften smug male implacability.
There are no DVD bonus features, only four trailers for other Strand releases.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray