Yamada Yoji does not make action-packed Hollywood blockbusters. Stemming from the branch of Japanese filmmakers taught by Ozu and Mizoguchi, Yamada’s films usually take a more introspective, down-to-earth direction. While Kabei: Our Mother is his 80th film, it was only in the early 2000s that Yamada gained the recognition of Western audiences. The films of his samurai trilogy (The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade, and Love and Honor) are all more interested in the internal conflicts of the characters and potent characterizations of the decaying Edo era than in epic, choreographed swordfights. The effect is either lost on the audience or whole-heartedly embraced. In terms of samurai films, Ninja Scroll is a bowl of gyuudon and The Twilight Samurai is kaiseki ryori.
Similarly, Kabei is not a run-of-the-mill World War II film. The story follows Nogami Kayo (AKA Kabei, played by Yoshinaga Sayuri), a mother who must care for her two daughters after her husband, a professor, is arrested and jailed for expressing opinions contrary to the Imperial war effort. Forced to cope with the difficulties of being a single mother and her own reservations about the rising nationalism in Japan, Kabei raises her daughters with the help of her lovely sister-in-law, a roudy uncle, and the clumsy and good-hearted Yamasaki. While, the film prefers to focus on human tragedy and distances itself from addressing the actions of the military, Kabei revolves around the Shiso Keisatsu (‘thought police’) and the actions the civilian police force took to silence dissenting opinions in Japan from 1911 to the end of the war. Throughout the film, Yamada portrays the war effort with a decidedly lukewarm attitude – policemen act callous and rude and the ever-present Imperial flags and national anthems are juxtaposed with the hardships of Kabei and her family.
The film is definitely designed to tug at the audiences’ emotions; thankfully Yamada’s understated style (favoring Ozu’s style of ground-level shots that highlight the domestic setting of the family) helps Kabei from becoming overly melodramatic. The performances of the actors are all spot on; Shofukutai Tsurube gives a great performance as a boisterous, ill-mannered uncle and a nearly unrecognizable Asano Tadanobu breaks away from his standard repertoire with the adorable Yamazaki-san.
While certain notable exceptions exist, films that directly address the subjects of nationalism and government oppression are particularly rare in Japan. Kabei: Our Mother is a sad drama that offers a slightly different perspective of the period, and for that it is very valuable. My one complaint, however, is that the movie doesn’t go far enough. Most of the action is set pre-1941 and before Japan entered into the Pacific War against America and the Allied powers. As most history buffs know, it is at this time that Japanese civilians began to face the deepest hardships of the war. Aside from sucker punching you with bad news via the closing narration of the movie, Kabei paints a considerably more pleasant picture of the Japanese home front than Grave of the Fireflies, for example. Criticism aside, Kabei: Our Mother is a great movie that more serious filmgoers should thoroughly enjoy.