Review: Kabei, Our Mother (2008)

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An adaptation of Teruyo Nogami’s autobiographical account of her childhood in Japan during World War II, Kabei, Our Mother is, incredibly, the 80th film from director Yôji Yamada, a man whose absurd prolificacy has evidently honed a considerable talent.

After her husband is detained on charges of revolutionary “thought crimes”, Kayo struggles to raise her two young girls alone in a country distraught by the rule of an iron-fisted regime. Aided by a former student of her husband, she experiences first-hand the shockingly unlawful treatment meted out by the uncaring judicial system.

“Kabei”, the nickname from which the film’s title springs, is affectionately accorded Kayo by her husband ever before we join these characters, perhaps the only indication we get of their relationship. He is thrown into prison within the film’s first fifteen minutes, leaving us to interpret much of his character from what is left behind, chiefly his wife and daughters. As the titular character, Sayuri Yoshinaga is completely mesmeric, drawing us into the plight of both her nation and herself as she silently suffers. Ever graceful and proud despite all the ill that befalls her character, Yoshinaga is wholly enveloped in her role, and we consequentially in Kayo and her story. The emotional impact of Kabei, Our Mother depends almost entirely on appreciating the burden put upon this character, a task made incredibly easy by the considerable frailty Yoshinaga communicates. The few instances wherein patience escapes her with her daughters clearly pain her, her face articulating the draining effect of her circumstances far better than words ever could.

Among the supporting cast, Tadanobu Asano excels as Yama, the young student who helps his former professor’s family in their time of need and joins the fight for his release. Yama provides the bulk of the film’s comic relief, interjecting as necessary with a healthy dose of slapstick to dilute the darkness and tension which often approach levels of discomfort. Secondary characters such as Kayo’s oafish brother and her cheerful sister-in-law populate the story with a wealth of interesting tangents, as well as richer explorations of the overarching theme of family. Kayo and her children may have been betrayed and maligned by their nation, but the clear support of her extended family shows that the negative picture of WWII Japan is one far removed from the reality of its people, who remain united together.

For all its considerable comic scenes and warm diagnoses of the role of family, Kabei, Our Mother is a surprisingly yet relentlessly tragic film, not afraid to show in full gut-wrenching detail the tortuousness of the ordeal the Nogami family are put through at the hands of their nation. Yamada crafts the emotion of his scenes perfectly, neatly avoiding the pitfalls of kitsch and sentimentality which the narrative occasionally looks to be heading toward, and delivering an unflinchingly realistic take on this difficult story. He strikes an admirable balance between finding hope in this desperate situation and keeping the very real sense of threat ever prominent. Perhaps the finest example of this lies with Kayo’s sister-in-law, the indomitably optimistic light who, we are reminded from time to time, is soon to return to her home in Hiroshima. Yamada juggles his tones thusly, never allowing us to forget the uncertain future of these characters even in the warmest scenes of unlikely hope.

If its tonal agility is Kabei, Our Mother’s greatest strength, then its final act must be its most impressive, Yamada deftly pulling the safety net of comic relief and warmth out from under us and allowing us to descend into a vast pit of darkness. His ability to flip freely from light-hearted gaiety to heavy drama in an instant structures the film beautifully in its first hundred minutes, making all the more impactful his focus upon the human tragedy of the final half hour as the inevitable events we all know from the history books finally occur. Here there is no reprieve; no relief. There are only the facts and the reality of these characters, bringing fully into view the forgotten horrors of the lives these people lived; the lives that most of us have never even paused to consider.

What might have seemed, on paper, a standard those-left-behind type war story, Kabei, Our Mother cements itself as much more with the strength of its central performance and the fluidity of its direction. Exposing a story that will be new to most outside Japan, and indeed many inside, it manages to elicit our sympathies without ever seeming macabre. The tragedy is already in the history, and Yamada is smart enough to let it speak for itself.

[notification type=”star”]78/100 – Kabei, Our Mother is a surprisingly yet relentlessly tragic film, cementing itself as much more than a simple war story with the strength of its central performance and the fluidity of its direction.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.