A series of quotidian observations of an ordinary life, Haruyo Kato’s moving personal documentary The Cheese & The Worms (チーズとうじ虫, Cheese to Ujimushi) sees the director returning to her hometown in order to spend time with her mother, Naomi, who is suffering with a terminal illness, and her elderly grandmother. Yet hers is not so much an exploration of sickness or old age as what it means to live in the shadow of death through the tiny moments of the everyday which ultimately construct a life as her mother tries to find joy in ordinariness and the director an acceptance of the abruptness with which a life can end.
Kato structures her tale as a series of vignettes each preceded by a title card featuring two words joined by an ampersand until such time as her mother passes away at which a single word remains only later joined by others. She begins and ends with the sky, but otherwise captures the small moments of everyday life that might otherwise be forgotten such as her mother cooking, attempting to grow vegetables in the field behind her home or appreciating the cosmos flowers blooming near by. Poignantly they decide to plant more the following year though uncertain if Naomi will see them bloom.
Meanwhile, Naomi uses her remaining time perfecting old hobbies such as learning to play the shamisen or painting in preparation for an exhibition alongside others from the retired teachers association. She spends time with her two young grandchildren and witnesses the birth of a third, the family coming together to celebrate grandma’s birthday. They do not talk very much about death save discussing Kato’s childhood trauma having lost her father young contributing to her sense of despair regarding her mother’s illness and declining health. We see her undergo various hospital treatments and gradually become weaker though trying to live as normal a life as possible.
Kato asks her grandmother if she fears death but is told that once you reach a certain age it no longer frightens you, she hoping only that it be peaceful and as painless as possible for herself and those left behind. One of Naomi’s regrets had also been that in dying first she would be abandoning her elderly mother while grandma too struggles to accept the loss. Poignant pillow shots capture the anxieties of ageing in her scattered mobility aids and the false teeth sitting in a glass, or otherwise find her too trying her best to live while reflecting that Naomi at least got to see her four grandchildren and lived a full and happy life. On her death she had said she wanted to become dust of the cosmos, while grandma after thinking for a moment answered that she’d like to be the earth which is perhaps a touching metaphor for a life of a mother and a daughter.
Yet the reality of Naomi’s death is echoed in its absences. Kato flipping through an old day planner as the number of appointments gradually declines before all of a sudden the pages are blank save for the boxes where her mother had penned in the days of the week, the book thereafter one of constant emptiness that reminds her of all the life left unlived in the terrible abruptness of its ending. She and her siblings later attend a sumo match in her mother’s place, reflecting that the camera flashes are like twinkling stars and wishing she could have come with them to see it.
Kato and her grandmother rewatch the home videos she had shot of her mother, reflecting on lost moments and their own memories as they each try to find acceptance and accommodation with loss. At her funeral, Naomi’s youngest grandson had attempted to crawl over her body, too young to understand the meaning of death and bursting into tears at the adults’ reaction, a confused mixture of horror and bemusement as they gently lift him away. It’s in these small, forgettable moments that Kato eventually finds meaning in life a sense of everyday happiness now unburdened by fear or anxiety and existing only as fragmentary memories of warmth and humour and given in a sense a second life in their constant replay through the art of Kato’s gentle filmmaking.
The Cheese & The Worms streams worldwide (excl. Japan) via DAFilms until Feb. 6 as part of Made in Japan, Yamagata 1989 – 2021 (films stream free until Jan. 24)