On its original release, Mother was a critical success; it came seventh in Kinema Jumpo‘s annual poll for 1952 (1), and was one of the few Mikio Naruse films seen outside Japan in his lifetime. As his work has become more familiar to Western audiences, Mother has suffered by comparison with other films he made during the last two years of the Occupation. These marked the beginning of his longest period of freedom and prestige: Ginza Cosmetics (1951), Lightning (1952) and Repast (1951). Set against their bleakness, Mother has been called sentimental. Yet Naruse sought this project, seeing in it – despite its inauspicious provenance (the source material was the winning story in a confectioners’ competition) – an opportunity to consolidate his return after years of compromise to his preferred milieu of family life in lower-middle-class economic precarity (2). Watching Mother closely, we discover a narration more plural and characteristically Narusian than its source and the haha-mono (‘mother story’) genre might lead us to expect.
There are two streams of narration in Mother: the voice-over by eldest daughter Toshiko (Kyōko Kagawa), and what Naruse shows us. The latter is not restricted by the former. Dan Sallitt has noted that Toshiko’s storytelling, with Ichirō Saitō’s score, creates ‘a sense of the present as already belonging to the past’ (3). While Toshiko’s naïve tone is maintained throughout, the rest of the film complicates it, moving chiefly (but not exclusively) between the perspectives of Toshiko, her mother Masako (Kinuyo Tanaka), and, less frequently, her little sister Chako (Keiko Enami). There are scenes of Toshiko’s life that her mother isn’t privy to, and there are aspects of her mother’s life of which Toshiko never becomes aware. We feel more of Chako’s anguish than do her mother and sister, and towards the end of the film we see her loneliness in her new home, ignored by her adoptive family. When Masako is alone at night with her dying husband Ryosuke (Masao Mishima), we share her point-of-view. When he dies just before lunch is to be served, and Masako and the children rush to his bed, little cousin Tetsuo (Takashi Itô) hangs back and looks down ruefully to the cooking pot, its lid already in his hand. Masako, Toshiko and Chako do not see this, but Naruse does.
Also complicating the tonal stasis of Toshiko’s storytelling are the briskness, wit and flexibility of Naruse’s style. His usual modernist straight cuts to introduce a single flashback of Mother’s early married life, and to the children’s visits to the amusement park; shooting from and in a real vehicle, the children looking and leaning out of the window; beginning a scene with Tetsuo’s upside-down point-of-view shot; cutting to ‘THE END’ appearing on the screen at a cinema Yoshiko and Aunt Noriko are attending. When, after the father’s funeral, the older women discuss the circumstances of their widowhood and conclude that ‘the survivors have it worst’ while Toshiko cries leaning on the laundry counter, Naruse’s way of creating temporary interpersonal spaces within a 360-degree whole makes neither of these reactions a joke about the other.
While we see past and around Toshiko’s view of events, and can adduce more from the knowledge we share with Masako, Naruse and screenwriter Yoko Mizuki never use the difference between what they know and what Toshiko understands for merely ironic juxtaposition. Mother doesn’t subvert or dismiss the genre’s respect for the sacrificial aspect of motherhood, but depicts this as entailing a series of actions and decisions made in the present tense, in precisely observed material circumstances. Masako does as much as she can to make her nurturing presence seem inevitable, allowing it to be taken for granted. We read her achievement in her daughter’s blithe, secure narration. Throughout the film, the family is in flux – the cousin is here, the brother is out of work, then at the clinic, then returned, then dead. Father is working, then ill, then dead himself. Toshiko is moving towards her own adult life. The feeling of stability that Masako creates despite this instability is her work, and it is demanding.
It is created in the midst of still greater instability. The widows date their unhappiness from the war. Ryosuke has lost years waiting to be allowed to resume his life. His friend Kimura (Daisuke Katō) – who the children call ‘Mr. P.O.W.’ (or, as another translation has it, ‘Uncle Prisoner’) – has just been released from a Soviet internment camp. Aunt Noriko has been repatriated from Manchuria. They have come home to one of Naruse’s hot, poor suburbs. Outside of the stability of family life and extended family life – Mother is also Aunt, and Sister – the world is as conditional, tiring and broke as it is in any of the Naruse films in which families and marriages collapse into dysfunction.
Masako’s relationship with Kimura is more nascent than thwarted. It appears in the plot as a rumour from outside the family home, given most support by the Westernised, opera-singing Shinjiro (Eiji Okada). It is less her daughter’s objection than the care Masako has already committed to, the choices she has already made, that put it out of the question. She is kept from going any further not by her child’s opinion, but by motherhood. Only the most oblique of approaches occurs: the preparation of her dead husband’s favourite snack, in the accustomed way. When Kimura leaves, we’re given no sense of any regret on his part.
Mother is a weepie full of laughter, and Naruse honours the strength of survivors’ familial love, a project perhaps invisible (or of no interest) to those involved in the transaction between the confectioners and Toho, but which surely motivated the efforts of the child who wrote the story. The mother is not ‘deified’ (4), but seen simultaneously in her role as mother and as someone who has chosen to fulfil that role. We love her with her daughter, and we feel for her with Naruse. We may conclude that a sentimentality awake to the material specifics of survival and shared life deserves to be called compassion.
1. Catherine Russell, The Cinema of Naruse Mikio: Women and Japanese Modernity (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 236.
2. Audie Bock, Mikio Naruse: A Master of the Japanese Cinema (Chicago: The Film Center of the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, 1984), p. 21.
3. Dan Sallitt, A Mikio Naruse Companion: Notes on the Extant Films, 1931-1967 (self-published online, 2015),p. 33.
4. Russell, p. 241.
Mother (Okaasan, 1952 Japan 98 mins)
Prod Co: Toho Prod: Ichiro Nagashima Dir: Mikio Naruse Scr: Yoko Mizuki Phot: Hiroshi Suzuki Ed: Hidetoshi Kasama Art Dir: Masatoshi Kato Mus: Ichirō Saitō
Cast: Kinuyo Tanaka, Masao Mishima, Kyōko Kagawa, Daisuke Katō, Eiji Okada, Keiko Enami, Takashi Itô