Kaasan, Mom's Life: Shanghai International Film Festival Review

A warm family portrait that keeps a light touch despite heart-wrenching situations

Japaanese director Shotaro Kobayashi is never maudlin or judgmental as he immerses one in a woman's daily battles as a working mother and wife of an alcoholic cancer victim as well as the demands and rewards of parenthood, cushioned by the good-humored and debonair tone.

SHANGHAI -- Based on personal experiences of manga artist Rieko Saibara, Kaasan, Mom’s Life is a tender and surprisingly funny drama of how a mother stays buoyant under the strain of her war photographer-husband Yutaka Kamoshida’s alcoholism and cancer. Director Shotaro Kobayashi’s attitude is never maudlin or judgmental; he simply immerses one in Saibara’s daily battles as a working mother, as well as the demands and rewards of parenthood. Cushioned by the good-humored and debonair tone, Kamoshida’s spiral of self-destruction hits home at the end with as much heartrending force as Leaving Las Vegas.

Following a good start landing theatrical rights in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the film could be marketed to family entertainment channels, although some aspects like alcoholism and domestic violence may be too disturbing for very young viewers.

The saga of Saibara and Kamoshida has already been adapted for the screen as Wandering Home, using the latter’s autobiography as a prime source. While its director Yoichi Higashi focused on Kamoshida’s stints at various medical institutions and stylized them as surreal black comedy, Kobayashi gives central voice to Saibara (Kyoko Koizumi), who narrates in the conversational tone of her serial manga Mainichi Kaasan (Everyday Mom).

The film opens with a typical day in Saibara’s life, which is a whirlwind of multi-tasking. Her children, 6-year-old Bunji and 4-year-old Fumi provide a light-hearted mood with their mischievous antics and delightfully no-nonsense views. For a while, Saibara seems no different from any Japanese housewife until the rude awakening of visiting dad (Masatoshi Nagase) in a rehab clinic, attached to an I.V. drip.

Nagase, whose performance won him best actor in the Japan Critics Award, projects enough boyish charm amidst his self-absorption to convince one that sometimes he could be the perfect dad and lover. Such as the time he comes back from a fishing outing with Bunji, with their catch still flapping about in his pockets.

Flashbacks of Kamoshida and Saibara’s dates in exotic lands are staged with fake sets and props out of school plays and children’s shows to instill a storybook quality to their initial romance. However, the narrative gets considerably darker as Kamoshida keeps succumbing to booze.

Initially, it’s farcical when he gulps down a bottle of “mirin” (cooking wine) while cooking, but eventually it becomes harrowing when traumatic memories of Cambodian killing fields trigger hallucinations and violent outbursts.

One-time teen idol Koizumi, who possesses much grace, makes her character seem unfazed and unflappable no matter how bad things get. Yet in the few rare shots when one sees her shell crack, even keeping a smile on her face comes across as a Herculean effort. One wonders if she is just too busy and tired to get depressed or kick up a fuss.

The care withwhich Katsuhiko Manabe’s screenplay catches the characters’ slightest mood shifts and the children’s subtle maturing pays off in the final scenes, which convey serene dignity to Kamoshida’s last days as he finally readjusts to a peaceful, civilian world, taking photos of his children and his neighborhood. The sense that fulfillment comes from just getting through another hectic day is reinforced by showing photos taken by Nagase and Kamoshida while end credits roll.

Technical credits are proficient but have no distinguished quality.

Venue: Shanghai International Film Festival
Production companies: TWINS Japan
Cast: Kyoko Koizumi, Masatoshi Nagase, Yusuke Shibe, Maiyu Konishi
Director: Shotaro Kobayashi
Screenwriter: Katsuhiko Manabe
Based on the serial manga by: Rieko Saibara
Producers: Chisui Takigawa, Daisuke Watanabe
Executive producers: Tetsuo Nakao, Tetsuya Nasuno, Mayu Konishi
Director of photography: Koichi Saito
Production designer: Tomoyuki Maruo
Music: Yoshikazu Suo
Costume designer: Takako Hamai
Editor: Ryuji Miyajima
Sales: Asatsu-DK Inc.
No rating, 114 minutes