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 marks 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. Both are delicious, but both are eaten with distinctly different intentions. Additionally, Yamada has built most of his career around depicting two specific eras of Japanese history; the late-Edo (ending in 1867) and Showa (1925-1989). Both of these periods marked times of tremendous change in Japan; the forcible ‘opening’ of Japan to Western trade and end of bakufu (Shogunate) rule (shortly followed by the dissolution of the samurai class) and Japan’s ill-fated foray into imperialism.
Like Yamada’s samurai trilogy, 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 rowdy uncle, and the clumsy and good-hearted Yamasaki. Uninterested in action, Yamada devotes the film’s energy to the portrayal of the characters’ experiences. Uninterested in romanticizing the past, Yamada also places his typical emphasis on historical accuracy and goes to considerable effort to accurately capture the look and atmosphere of Showa era Japan.
Like most Japanese WWII movies, the film prefers to focus on human tragedy and avoids addressing the cause of the war with China or America and distances itself from addressing the actions of the military. Soldiers are completely absent from the majority of the film, only a few scenes contain any images of men in military uniforms. However, Kabei sets itself apart by revolving 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 towards citizens, pro-war organizations harass women in the street for being too conscious about their appearance, and the ever-present Imperial flags and national anthems are juxtaposed with the hardships of Kabei and her family. In one scene, Kabei attends a neighborhood town meeting, which is routinely begun by bowing in the direction of the Imperial palace. One old lady, earnest in her respect to the Emperor, questions whether they should be bowing in the direction of the palace when the Emperor is currently at another residence. The group attempts to locate the proper direction to bow in, which no one is absolutely sure of, ponders their dilemma for a few moments and then reverts back to the default position of bowing in the direction of the Imperial palace. Though subtle, this scene depicts just how absurd Japanese nationalism was becoming during the early 1940s. In another, Kabei plays the tune of the national anthem on a piano while her students sing along. Yamada then cuts to the prison cell holding her husband, jammed to capacity with dirty, starving prisoners.
While sympathetic to the difficulties faced by families in the Japanese home front during the war, the film is not sympathetic to the war effort or to the militaristic ultra-nationalism that consumed the country for nearly two decades. Towards the end of the movie, Yamazaki-san, an intellectual completely ill-suited to war or conflict, receives his draft notice and must leave Kabei and her daughters. As voiceover narration leads us to the film’s conclusion, we learn that everyone Kabei loves dies before the war is over; her husband freezes to death in prison, Aunt Hiroko dies of radiation poisoning a month after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (the film’s only reference to the atomic bomb), the uncle kills himself, and the wonderful Yamazaki-san drowns when the ship transporting him from Manchuria to the Pacific front is hit by a torpedo and sinks. By the film’s conclusion, Kabei: Our Mother’s message is explicitly clear: the war was a terrible waste that stripped every Japanese citizen of the people they held most dear. Even the film’s final scene holds no comfort; lying on her deathbed, one of Kabei’s daughters tries to reassure her that soon she will be with Tobei (her husband) in the next life. Kabei responds, “I don’t want him in the next life, I want to be with him in this life.” This one line is the film’s most damning condemnation of the war; one of the most common ways Japanese citizens and soldiers comforted themselves and each other during the war was with the reassurance that their souls would find peace in the next life, after giving their lives in service of the Emperor. Clearly, this platitude meant nothing to Kabei.
Kabei: Our Mother is definitely designed to tug at the audiences’ emotions; thankfully Yamada’s understated filmmaking (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 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. Kabei’s home remains mostly intact at the end of the war and the utter destruction of Tokyo is only briefly shown. The film does not show the increased rationing of Japanese civilians or that most were starving by the end of the war. As an interesting historical anecdote, after the Japanese surrender, US military forces began providing food to Japanese citizens via airlifts. In one airlift, soldiers dropped tins of coffee into the Japanese countryside. Rather than making coffee, people tried to eat the grounds. Criticism aside, Kabei: Our Mother is a great movie that more serious filmgoers should thoroughly enjoy.