Kabei: Our Mother (母べえ, Yoji Yamada, 2008)

KabeiYoji Yamada’s films have an almost Pavlovian effect in that they send even the most hard hearted of viewers out for tissues even before the title screen has landed. Kabei (母べえ), based on the real life memoirs of script supervisor and frequent Kurosawa collaborator Teruyo Nogami, is a scathing indictment of war, militarism and the madness of nationalist fervour masquerading as a “hahamono”. As such it is engineered to break the hearts of the world, both in its tale of a self sacrificing mother slowly losing everything through no fault of her own but still doing her best for her daughters, and in the crushing inevitably of its ever increasing tragedy.

Summer, 1940. The Nogamis are a happy family who each refer to each other by adding the cute suffix of “bei” to their names. The father, Tobei (Bando Mitsugoro X), is a writer and an intellectual opposed to Japan’s increasing militarism and consequently has found himself in both political and financial difficulties as his writing is continually rejected by the censors. Eventually, the secret police come for him, dragging him away from his home in front of his terrified wife and daughters. After Tobei is thrown into jail for his “thought crimes”, the mother, Kabei (Sayuri Yoshinaga), is left alone with her two young girls Hatsuko and Teruyo (Hatsubei and Terubei in family parlance).

Though devastated, Kabei does not give up and continues to try and visit her husband, urging his release and defending his reputation but all to no avail. Thankfully, she does receive assistance from some of her neighbours who, at this point at least, are sympathetic to her plight and even help her get a teaching job to support herself and the children in the absence of her husband. She also finds an ally in the bumbling former student, Yamazaki (Tadanobu Asano), as well as her husband’s sister Hisako (Rei Dan), and her brother (Tsurube Shofukutei) who joins them for a brief spell but ultimately proves a little too earthy for the two young middle class daughters of a dissident professor.

The time passes and life goes on. The war intensifies as do the attitudes of Kabei’s friends and neighbours though the family continues its individual struggle, sticking to their principles but also keeping their heads down. By the war’s end, Kabei has lost almost everything but managed to survive whilst also ensuring her children are fed and healthy. A voice over from the older Teryuo calmly announces the end of the conflict to us in such a matter of fact way that it’s impossible not wonder what all of this was for? All of this suffering, death and loss and what has it led to – even more suffering, death and loss. A senseless waste of lives young and old, futures ruined and families broken.

Yet for all that, and to return to the hahamono, the Nogami girls turned out OK. Successful lives built in the precarious post-war world with careers, husbands and families. Unlike many of the children in the typical mother centric movie, Hatsuko and Teruyo are perfectly aware of the degree to which their mother suffered on their behalf and they are both humbled and grateful for it. Kabei was careful and she kept moving to protect her children in uncertain times. Seen through the eyes of a child, the wartime years are ones of mounting terror as fanatical nationalism takes hold. Bowler hatted men seem to rule everything from the shadows and former friends and neighbours are primed to denounce each other for such crimes as having the audacity to wear lipstick in such austere times. In one notable scene, the neighbourhood committee begins its meeting by bowing at the Imperial Palace, until someone remembers the paper said the Emperor was in a different palace entirely and they all have to bow the other way just in case.

Though the tale is unabashedly sentimental, Yamada mitigates much of the melodrama with his firmly domestic setting. We see the soldiers massing in the background and feel the inevitable march of history but the sense of tragedies both personal and national, overwhelming as it is, is only background to a testament to the strength of ordinary people in trying times. An intense condemnation of the folly of war and the collective madness that is nationalism, Kabei is the story of three women but it’s also the story of a nation which suffered and survived. Now more than ever, the lessons of the past and the sorrow which can only be voiced on the deathbed are the ones which must be heeded, lest more death and loss and suffering will surely follow.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Thermae Romae

THERMAE ROMAE-T

Lucius ambulat in Tokyo? Review of improbable time travel comedy Thermae Romae up at UK-anime.net.


Pop quiz – what do modern day Japan and Ancient Rome have in common? Fish sauce? Emperor worship? Sandals? More than you thought, wasn’t it? Well, the correct answer is public bath houses and sure enough the people of modern day Tokyo still love going to the public bath even though they enjoy the luxury of being able to bathe at home! Of course, bath house culture with all its social and political uses and divisions was one of the things the Roman Empire took with it wherever it went. However, there must have been a time when some Romans began to feel their baths were getting a bit stale and in need of a new ‘modern’ twist, but what to do? What if they could leap forward in time and learn from the 21st century bath culture of modern Japan! Enter down on his luck architect Lucius who suddenly finds himself in a strange land full of strange looking people who seem to have taken bath technology to its very zenith.

Lucius Modestus (Hiroshi Abe) is a once successful bath architect with a case of serious designer’s block. Replaced on a prime project because he’s been unable to come up with any ideas he decides to go for a soak at the local bath house but whilst clearing his head underwater he finds himself sucked through a passage way only to reappear in a very strange looking place – it’s a bath house alright, but not as we know it! As they’re speaking a strange language he doesn’t understand, Lucius assumes the elderly men bathing here must be slaves and he’s been sucked into the “slaves only” part of the baths. Some of this stuff is kind of cool though – what are these funny spigot like things for, and these handy little buckets? Wait – they have baskets for their clothes?! We could do with some these in our bit! And so Lucius experiences the wonder of public bathing in Japan to the extent that it makes him cry with joy at which point he returns to Ancient Rome and begins to put some of these techniques to use in his designs. Travelling back and fore, Lucius always seems to run into the same Japanese girl who wants to make him the star of a manga and group of kindly old men. Can Lucius finally build the bath house of his dreams and stop a conspiracy against his beloved Emperor Hadrian at the same time?

Based on Mari Yamazaki’s manga of the same name (which also received an anime treatment from DLE), Thermae Romae sticks fairly closely to a fish out of water format for the the first half of the film as Lucius becomes by turns confused and then entranced by the various pieces of modern bathing technology he encounters on his travels. As a Roman encountering other people who are obviously not Roman, he of course adopts a superior attitude and assumes these people are either slaves or ought to be and so is extremely bewildered that their advancements seem to have eclipsed those of his own beloved Rome. These situations obviously provide a lot of room for humour as Lucius encounters various things that seem perfectly normal to us but strange and alien to him – his pure joy at discovering the wonder of the multifunctional Japanese toilet being particularly notable. It does though become fairly repetitive as Lucius finds himself in different situations which are essentially the same joke in different colours but then when the plot element begins to kick in later in the film it too fails to take off and feels a little too serious when taken with the wacky time travelling antics we began with.

Aided in his quest Lucius meets several amusing supporting characters including the group of elderly men from the baths who didn’t really need the help of an improbable ancient Roman to get themselves in trouble and Mami who functions as a kind of love interest who’s cast Lucius as the hero in her next manga. Mami begins learning about the Roman Empire and takes a course in Latin which helps a lot when she too finds herself in Ancient Rome and facilitates a kind of cross cultural exchange as she steals ideas from Rome for her manga as Lucius stole for the baths. However, the romantic comedy element never really comes together and even as Mami continues to pine over her noble Roman, Lucius remains aloof in the universal belief that all non-Romans are inferior. Though he does come to grudgingly acknowledge that the ‘flat faced people’ as he calls them have particular strengths such as their willingness to work as a team and put collective success ahead of personal gain, he never quite sheds his Roman arrogance.

It’s all very silly but undeniably quite funny if often absurd. We hear everyone in Rome speaking in Japanese and Lucius continues to think in Japanese wherever he actually is but obviously once he gets to Japan he can’t understand what anyone’s saying and attempts to communicate with them in Latin (whilst still giving his interior monologue in Japanese). Likewise, when Mami learns Latin she uses it to communicate with Lucius in Japan but once they get to Rome, all their ‘Latin’ is Japanese too which causes problems when the old men arrive because they’re speaking the same language as everyone else yet can’t understand anyone or be understood – which might be why they don’t get to say very much other than to Mami. It’s all quite strange and disorientating but kind of works as does the largely Puccini based score which screams 19th century Italy much more than Ancient Rome but helps to give the film the air of classical pomposity it’s aiming for. Big, ridiculous, silly fun – no one could accuse Thermae Romae of having any kind of serious message but it does provide genuinely entertaining silliness for the majority of its running time.