Kabei -- Our Mother

Bottom Line: Old-fashioned, wartime family melodrama with a tender humanist heart.


BERLIN -- "Kabei -- Our Mother," the latest blockbuster from prolific director Yoji Yamada ("Love and Honor," the "Tora-san" series) is not as artistically refined as his Samurai trilogy, but hits all the right spots to make you cry like chopping onions. Just as Yamada modernized the samurai genre by making his heroes family men and struggling breadwinners facing professional restructuring, "Kabei" authenticates Japan's wartime history by showing in quietly chilling detail how foreign aggression aside, the nation also turned on her own citizens who expressed dissident ideas. The film is adapted from the best-selling autobiography of Teruyo Nogami, who was script supervisor for several of Akira Kurosawa's films.

Domestically, "Kabei" drew largely senior audiences. Judging from the unanimous sobbing and repeated round of applause at the Berlinale press screening, the film might find favor with a more varied age group abroad. Indeed, Yamada's lifelong celebration of ordinary people who live with dignity and forbearance in economic or political hardship could find sympathizers everywhere. Excellent production values deserve some overseas commercial theater release.

"Kabei begins in February 1940, when the Nogami sisters enjoy a meal with their gentle, doting mother and scruffy-intellectual father. At night, the police suddenly arrest father for the "thought crime" of opposing war with China in his writing. His presence of at the meal table is replaced by his photo thereon.

Yamazaki (Tadanobu Asano), Tobei's helpful student becomes a beacon in their dark days of poverty and discrimination. The rest of the film portrays mother's efforts to hold the family together, the daily indignities they suffer and their small assertions of pride. Interactions with a colorful galley of relatives and neighbors demonstrate the decency and mean-spiritedness people are capable of. Scenes of the clumsy Yamazaki crying on a prison visit, an eccentric uncle's gruff defiance of the patriotic brigade, and the community club's sheeplike emperor-worship lighten the increasing soppy narrative development.

Yamada really brings out the tear gas in a final scene set in postwar times, when the bedridden Kabei drops her stiff upper lip to mutter an emotionally devastating line. Regarded as a living icon of Japanese cinema, Sayuri Yoshinaga's performance is above reproach, but it does take major suspension of disbelief to see the 63-year-old actress as a mother of school age kids.

In a time when historical revisionism is making a comeback through films like "Yamato" and "For Those We Love," which romanticize militarism and suicide missions, Yamada's reconnection with the classic genre of hahamono (mother-centered stories) to convey his moral indignation, is a minor version of Keisuke Kinoshita's traditional yet progressively humanist masterpieces like "A Japanese Tragedy" and "Twenty-four Eyes."

Kabei Film Partners/Shochiku Co Ltd
Director-screenwriter: Yoji Yamada
Co-screenwriter: Emiko Hiramatsu
Based on the book by: Teruyo Nogami
Producers: Hiroshi Fukasawa, Takashi Yajima
Director of photography: Mutsuo Naganuma
Production designer: Mitsuo Degawa
Music: Isao Tomita
Costume designer: Kazuo Matsuda
Editor: Ishii Iwao
Kayo "Kabei": Sayuri Yoshinaga
Toru Yamazaki: Asano Tadanobu
Hatsuko: Mirai Shida
Teruoyo: Miku Sato
Hisako: Rei Dan
Shigeru Nogami "Tobei": Bando Mitsugoro

Running time -- 133 minutes
No MPAA rating