Dir: Kijyu Yoshida. Japan. 2002. 129mins.
Kijyu Yoshida's first feature in 14 years, Women In The Mirror, is a throwback to the humanistic films with a political slant that once flowed from Japan's 1960s Nouvelle Vague, of which he was a key member. It is also a reminder of why such films have become harder to sell to younger Japanese audiences. Yoshida's concern with the impact of the bomb on Hiroshima across the decades will hardly seem pressing to an apolitical generation that only knows of the war years from textbooks (if that). Instead his orthodox stylistics and weepy story of maternal guilt and redemption will remind them less of Japanese Golden Age classics than tear-jerking TV dramas. The film's appeal is likely to be limited to an older, mainly female audience, although its special screening at Cannes will win it respectful attention from the Japanese media and boost its chances of arthouse success at home. Abroad, limited theatrical distribution is possible, more so in France from where Women In The Mirror received backing, although the Hiroshima subject matter is unlikely to strike the same nerve.
At the centre of the three-generation storyline is Ai Kawase (Mariko Okada), an elderly woman who lives alone in an elegant old-style house. Her only daughter, Miwa, ran away from home 24 years ago, leaving an infant daughter, Natsuki. Her husband, a prominent physician, died several years ago but Ai still feels haunted by his absence - and continues her search for Miwa. One day, she receives word that Miwa (Yoshiko Tanaka) has been arrested on a kidnapping charge. She now goes by a different name, Masako, and cannot recall her previous life.
Stunned by this news, Ai calls Natsuki (Sae Isshiki), who is now living in America, and asks her to return home. She also receives a visit from a young TV producer (Mirai Yamamoto), who wants her co-operation for a programme about a US solider who was saved in Hiroshima by her husband. Ai, however, curtly refuses, saying that she knows nothing of this incident, a lie, as it turns out. When Ai finally meets Masako, she is certain this blank-faced woman is her daughter, although Ai rejects Natsuki's suggestion that she get a DNA test. She only wants to restore the remains of her family - a task seemingly as easy as repairing the mirror in the hallway that Miwa shattered shortly before she ran away.
The trauma of Hiroshima, the film implies, has echoed through three generations, down to Natsuki who, abandoned by her mother, can no longer trust other human beings. Yoshida, who has nurtured this project since the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing in 1995, describes the trauma obliquely, with images of broken mirrors, disturbed dreams and the inevitable shots of the Hiroshima Peace Park and Atomic Dome. This approach may resonate with older Japanese, but it is unlikely to persuade foreign audiences that Yoshida has much new to say about a tragedy that many Japanese filmmakers, including Shohei Imamura (Black Rain) and Akira Kurosawa (Record Of A Living Being, Rhapsody In August) have dealt with over the decades.
Mariko Okada, a favourite of Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Ozu who is returning to the screen after an 18-year absence, brings a matronly dignity to the role of Ai, although her motherly agonising is too one note. The strongest performance is that of Yoshiko Tanaka, who conveys Miwa/Masako's isolation and anger with an economy that contrasts sharply with much of the emoting around her. The film, however, never makes clear how much of her predicament is due to Hiroshima specifically, the war in general or simply the tribulations of life itself. Yoshida evidently needs Hiroshima to tell his story - but his story could probably still stand without it.
Prod cos: Groove Corporation, Gendai Eigasha, Root Pictures, Groove Cinema Tokyo
Japan dist/int'l sales: Groove Corporation
Prod: Akira Narusawa, Masanori Ayabe, Matsuo Takahashi
Scr: Kijyu Yoshida
Cinematography: Masao Nakahori
Ed: Kijyu Yoshida, Hiroaki Morishita
Prod des: Kyoko Heya
Music: Keiko Harada
Main cast: Mariko Okada, Yoshiko Tanaka, Sae Isshiki, Mirai Yamamoto, Hideo Murota