Dir: Yoji Yamada. Japan 2007. 132 mins
In Kabei - Our Mother, Yamada's 80th film to date, the veteran Japanese director offers a sweet, gentle, weepy recollection of Japan on the eve of the Second World War (1940-41), based on the autobiographical story by Teruyo Nogami.
An out-and-out melodrama, the picture tells the story of a Japanese scholar of German literature who is sent to prison for committing 'thought crimes'. His wife and two daughters are left behind at home to cope with increasingly difficult conditions (both material and political) as the ruling regime introduces repressive laws to stifle opposition.
Given Yamada's vast experience, Kabei is unsurprisingly polished and solid, and as such could easily draw large audiences at home. It has little new to say abroad, though, where each territory has its own tale of woe from that time. Festivals may think twice before selecting such a conventional tearjerker - although it's entirely respectable, Kabei doesn't have much to offer in the way of artistic originality.
Shigeru Nogami (Bando) teaches German literature at the university and writes anti-war texts. Despite his efforts to make them appear blameless, he provokes the wrath of the authorities and is thrown in jail indefinitely, leaving behind his wife Kayo (Yoshinaga) and his two daughters, Hatsuko (Shida) and Terumi (Sato).
Yamazaki (Asano), one of Nogami's former students, immediately dedicates himself to helping out the family, almost becoming one of them in the process. As the political climate deteriorates, with vigilante committees patrolling the streets to make sure all luxuries are sacrificed for the good of the homeland, a number of new characters enter the picture. These include Nogami's sister Hisako (Dan), who moves in and helps with the housework; loutish uncle Senchiki (Tsurube Shofukutei) who can't keep his mouth shut; and Kayo's father, Hisataro (Umenosuke Nakamura), a caricature of a fierce Japanese nationalist.
Kabei is undoubtedly a sincere and accurate chronicle of those bitter times. The overall tone is one of melancholy earnestness. Alternating between dignified resignation and tearful sadness, his characters are appropriately sensitive, although with the direction being so sentimental, it can all occasionally feel a little over-the-top.
Veteran Yoshinaga offers a noble, touching performance as the unassuming mother who is saddled with unexpected responsibilities. Asano, one of the best known young Japanese actors at the moment (Zatoichi, Cafe Lumiere, Last Life In The Universe), is again chameleon-like as the fiercely faithful Yamazaki. Handsomely shot and smoothly edited, this is nothing less than a professional melodrama by a respectable veteran. And nothing more either.
Kabei Film Partners
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Based on Requiem for a Father by Teruyo Nogami