Friday, July 20, 2012

Japan Cuts ’12: Chronicle of My Mother

Kosaku Igami follows the golden rule for novelists.  He writes about what he knows.  In his case, he knows about abandonment and mother issues.  Nonetheless, he and his dutiful daughters will look after his aging mother in her years of waning lucidity throughout Masato Harada’s Chronicle of My Mother (trailer here), which screens as part of the Focus on Kôji Yakusho tribute at the 2012 Japan Cuts: the New York Festival of Japanese Cinema.

In the post-war years, Igami’s family temporarily immigrated to Taiwan, but he was left behind with “Granny Nui.”  There were reasons for this, but they were never adequately explained to Igami.  The beloved Granny Nui’s rather ambiguous position within the family further stoked his resentment.  Despite his painful childhood memories, Igami became a success, filling novels and stories with thinly disguised characters based on his family.  This in turn has led to some resentment on his daughters’ part.

Though Igami was never close to his mother, her well-being becomes a constant source of concern for the entire family after the death of his father.  She has always been difficult and Igami’s sisters start to suspect she is exploiting her signs of senility to say whatever caustic comment crosses her mind.  She is a handful alright, but Igami’s daughter Kotoko is willing to hold up more than her end.

Predominantly set in the 1960’s, Chronicle stylistically and thematically harkens back to the great films of Yasujiro Ozu, even invoking Tokyo Story by name.  Kotoko is definitely a figure in the tradition of Ozu’s Norikos, as is her sensitive sister, who happens to be named Noriko.

Though he is still working through the psychological baggage of his youth, Igami is gruff, headstrong, and manly, requiring the kind of presence Japan Cuts special guest Yakusho specializes in.  While the story, based on Yasushi Inoue’s autobiographical novel, charts a somewhat predictable course, Yakusho’s big emotional payoff is hard-earned and honest.  Likewise, Aoi Miyazaki’s work as Kotoko is exquisitely expressive and sensitive.  Yet, the key to the film might be Kiki Kirin’s Mother Yae.  Rather than a full-throttle descent into dementia, she maintains an ambiguity regarding the matriarch’s state of mind, giving viewers hope for some form of familial rapprochement.
Indeed, Harada’s approach is refreshingly earnest yet disciplined enough to spurn cheap sentimentality.  While certainly reflecting the specifics of Japanese society, its themes are undeniably universal.  Lovingly shot in warm tones by cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa and featuring a complimentary chamber music soundtrack by Harumi Fuki (with an assist from Bach), Chronicle is richly produced period drama.  Recommended for those who appreciate nostalgic family dramas and tearjerkers with a sense of restraint, Chronicle of My Mother screens tomorrow night (7/21) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.