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Kabei - Our Mother
Kabei - Our Mother

(from left to right) Miku Sato, Sayuri Yoshinaga, and Mirai Shida in Kabei - Our Mother.
  Japanese: 母べえ
Year: 2007  
Director: Yoji Yamada  
  Writer: Yoji Yamada , Emiko Haramatsu, Teruyo Nogami (original novel)

Sayuri Yoshinaga, Tadanobu Asano, Mitsugoro Bando, Miku Sato, Mirai Shida, Tsurube Shofukutei, Rei Dan, Denden, Mitsuru Fukikoshi, Tokie Hidari, Koen Kondo, Umenosuke Nakamura, Hideji Otaki, Takashi Sasano, Mizuho Suzuki, Keiko Toda

  The Skinny:

Yoji Yamada's drama is a compelling portrait of a strong woman in wartime Japan, and an affecting look at hidden human emotions. As a generic tearjerker or a gentle subversion of the genre, Kabei - Our Mother earns its wings.

by Kozo:

Yoji Yamada's Kabei - Our Mother is a nominal tearjerker, but it surprises in a subtle and yet very compelling way. This is the based-on-real-life story of Kayo Nogami (the pitch-perfect Sayuri Yoshinaga), affectionately called "Kabei" by her family. The entire family possesses these pet names, with Kabei being a combination of mother (o-KA-asan) and "bei", while father Shigeru is shortened to Tobei (from the Japanese word for father, "o-TO-osan"), and their daughters' names Teruyo and Hatsuko abbreviated to Terubei and Hatsubei. The family lives an austere existence in pre-World War II Japan, with rising nationalism having a direct and unfortunate effect on Shigeru (Mitsugoro Bando). A writer and scholar, Shigeru is arrested for radical (i.e., non-conformist) thinking and jailed without trial, placing immediate hardships on Kayo and their two daughters.

The Nogami family's problems allow the audience to learn just who Kayo is, and why her story matters. After getting over the shock of Shigeru's arrest, the family has to attend to practical things, like making ends meet, plus they must endure the quiet disapproval and judgement of outsiders. Luckily, Kayo has the help of Toru Yamazaki (Tadanobu Asano), a student of Shigeru's, who shows up on the Nogami family doorstep to offer a helping hand. Affectionately called Yama-chan, the clumsy but lovable Yamazaki enables Kayo to cope with her mounting difficulties, which start with gossip and money, and grow to include Shigeru's continued incarceration, the children's growth and maturation, Kayo's estrangement from her police chief father (Umenosuke Nakamura), a visit from layabout Uncle Senkichi (Tsurube Shofukutei), and Japan's continued march to war. Through it all, Kayo must keep calm, attending to the needs of her daughters and her husband while making required sacrifices.

It's the sacrifices that matter in Kabei. Many are small but acute, such as Kayo giving up her pride or anger in the face of battles that she cannot win. When the authorities criticize her husband, Kayo must remain quiet and subservient, even hitting Teruyo for misbehaving in front of men that she obviously detests. Likewise, Japan's growing nationalism is subtly criticized, with Kayo quietly but obviously tolerating the blind allegiance of her neighbors. This theme of war's social effects is present in Kabei, but it seems more a product of the situations and characters rather than an overriding point of view. Some characters in the film are quite vocal in their criticism for Japan's war-fueled nationalism, and the unfolding events demonstrate the human cost of a nation at war.

However, Yamada doesn't appear to be registering his own overt disapproval, and seems more interested in his characters than their historical context. In portraying his characters, Yamada demonstrates how regular people change - both positively and negatively - in such a charged climate. Kabei succeeds in large part because Yamada keeps his focus human and his anti-war messages rooted in character. Many of his characters are against the government's local handling of the war, but they seem like people with aligned beliefs and not mouthpieces for a political agenda. Fledging filmmakers could learn a lot from Yamada; he lets his characters and their trials define the story, and leaves the filmmaker's hand conspicuously out of sight.

He may have done too good a job. At first, second, and even third glance, Kabei appears to be just about how one woman bravely and resolutely fights the good fight. The war, unjust authority, and other mounting obstacles impact her life, and yet she finds the will to take care of her family and survive. The struggle is not easy; Kayo falls ill from exhaustion, and Shigeru's situation seems to worsen over time. The film's seemingly obvious message is that Kayo should be respected because she's required to shoulder so much. That point is well represented, but Kayo takes on something more pressing and emotionally acute than the burden of unfortunate circumstance. She also shoulders the burden of her personal desires and hopes, as she sacrifices them in order to fulfill her duty, responsibility, and maternal love.

Ultimately, it's not the sacrifices that make Kabei an accomplished film, but the understandable and even selfish regret hidden behind them. Yamada delivers a quiet, but emotionally devastating conclusion to his film by showing us that Kayo's choices - even those made out of love - are not redemptive or affirming of traditional values. Tearjerkers usually lean on safe, expected emotions and ideas to start the waterworks, but Kabei features an ending that's not a positive affirmation, nor is it what people likely expect from a commercial, family-centric drama. The film ends on an affecting, but somewhat off-putting note, and without the expected message that Kayo's sacrifices throughout the years were necessarily worth it. There's silent, bittersweet fault assigned, where nobody is to blame and yet everybody is. Lives change, people change, and we sometimes go to the grave with decades-old regret that we can never share with others. There's something terribly sad and marvelously affecting about that theme, and it makes Kabei - Our Mother potentially unsatisfactory and also unexpectedly sublime. (Kozo 2008)

  Availability: DVD (Japan)
Shochiku Home Video
Region 2 NTSC
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Japanese Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Japanese subtitles
Various extras

image courtesy of the Hong Kong International Film Festival Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen