Thursday, May 21, 2009

Kabei: Our Mother

It was not easy being a reform-minded western scholar in Imperial Japan during World War II. Even a German specialist could attract the unwelcome attention of the secret police. Such is the case for Shigeru Nogami, whose arrest forces his wife to raise their two young daughters by herself in Yoji Yamada’s Kabei: Our Mother (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Based on an autobiographical novel by Akira Kurosawa’s longtime collaborator Teruyo Nogami, Kabei tells the story of a loving family caught up in a time of national madness. Their humanistic father has strong absent-minded professor tendencies and a quirky sense of humor, assigning nicknames for the entire family ending with the affectionate “bei.” Following his 1940 imprisonment for daring to question Japanese militarism in China, Kayo Nogami, or Kabei, will make enormous sacrifices to provide for her daughters, the twelve year-old Hatsubei and the nine-year old Terubei.

Though ostracized by many as the wife of a traitor, including her provincial police chief father, Kabei has some help from her sister-in-law, pretty Aunt Hisako, and the awkward Toru Yamasaki, her husband’s former student. However, life is a constant struggle for Kabei, working from dawn to dark, often foregoing proper sustenance herself in order to feed Terubei and Hatsubei.

Considering recent Japanese historical treatments of World War II have been revisionist to the point of outright denial, Kabei’s portrayal of Imperial Japan is surprisingly critical. Yamada shows dissenters like Professor Nogami arrested in the dead of night and held indefinitely on specious charges. He recreates an oppressive environment, where propaganda is pervasive. Even the deeply conflicted Kabei must lead her elementary students through nationalistic hymns. However, even more damning is the extent to which Yamada’s film suggests average citizens willingly embraced the government’s militarist policies and the tactics used to enforce them.

Conditions of the Japanese home-front and the draconian implementation of the Peace Preservation Law will likely fascinate many viewers, but ultimately Kabei is about family tragedy, compounded several times over. While it clearly honors the suffering born by the Nogami matriarch, it is a far cry from a Hallmark card. It ends on an ambiguously discomforting note that will not exactly make Kabei a Mother’s Day perennial. It is however, a deeply moving human drama, with several beautiful scenes of absolute emotional honesty.

Sayuri Yoshinaga gives a remarkable performance, capturing all the pain and desperation Kabei, as well as her quiet dignity. If not quite as extraordinarily effective as the young cast of So Young Kim’s Treeless Mountain, Miku Sato and Mirai Shida are still completely natural and utterly convincing as Terubei and Hatsubei respectively. Rei Dan also has some surprisingly touching moments as the endearing Aunt Hisako. Only Tadanobu Asano seems slightly off the mark here, coming across somewhat slapsticky as the loyal Yamasake.

Kabei is an excellent film from one of Japan’s master filmmakers, who directs an outstanding cast with tremendous sensitivity. The result is a very accessible, deeply absorbing film, highly recommended to general audiences. It opens this Friday (5/22) in New York at the Quad Cinema.