Mother (おかあさん, Mikio Naruse, 1952)

The hahamono or mother movie is a mainstay of post-war cinema, obsessed as it is with self-sacrificing maternity. Mikio Naruse, however, is not a name you’d expect to see associating itself with the genre and his 1952 film Mother (おかあさん, Okaasan), adapted from a child’s essay, is indeed subtly subversive, transgressively questioning the institution of motherhood itself while ostensibly remaining faithful to genre norms even as it makes an accidental villain of its teenage heroine who closes the film plaintively praying for her mother’s happiness having not so long ago shut down perhaps her only real hope of achieving it. 

The Fukuhara family ran a successful laundry before the war, but these days father Ryosuke (Masao Mishima) works at a factory and is nicknamed Papa Popeye by his kids because of his finely tuned muscles born of a lifetime training the iron. Matriarch Masako (Kinuyo Tanaka) and 18-year-old daughter Toshiko (Kyoko Kagawa), our narrator, help the family finances by running street food stalls, while oldest son Susumu (Akihiko Katayama) has become ill with a lung complaint caused by poor conditions at the wool factory where he was working. In addition to youngest daughter Chako who is still in school, the family has also taken in little Tetsu (Takashi Ito) the son of Masako’s sister Noriko (Chieko Nakakita) who is now a widow recently repatriated from Manchuria. 

Like many films of the occupation period, the family at the centre of Mother is determined to rebuild, pinning all their hopes on being able to renovate their home in order to be able to reopen the laundry. The war is very much a background presence but its influence is still deeply felt not least in the ruins and devastation glimpsed around the house and the constant references to loss and widowhood which seem to plague Masako, so many women having lost sons and husbands in the conflict. The tragedy is that Masako will eventually in one sense or another lose all her children by the end of the picture, Susumu succumbing to his illness after having discharged himself from hospital out of guilt and loneliness missing his mother, Chako eventually taken in by wealthier relatives who lost their son in the war, Tetsu soon to be retrieved by his mother, and Toshiko herself clearly heading towards marriage with the cheerful and surprisingly progressive baker Shinjiro (Eiji Okada) with whom she has become close. 

Perhaps surprisingly Toshiko seems remarkably immature for her age, her voiceover taken as it is from a child’s essay has a slightly stilted quality that nevertheless makes plain her poor grasp of the adult world and most particularly the reality of her mother’s life. Masako later tells us that she started working at 14 and continued until she married at not so much older than Toshiko is now despite later stating that Toshiko is too young to marry only to find her self shocked when confronted by the sight of her in a wedding dress stifling a brief wave of despair that her daughter may soon be a wife. Originally complaining about not being able to take dressmaking classes like some of the other girls, Toshiko belatedly swears to help support the family firstly to prevent Chako going to stay with relatives and secondly because her boyfriend inadvertently gives her the impression there’s truth in a local rumour that her mother plans to remarry following her husband’s death from overwork and poverty with a friend of their father’s who’s been helping them out in the shop, “Uncle POW” Mr. Kimura (Daisuke Kato). 

Shinjiro is quick to tell her that she’s being unreasonable. In the modern world parents shouldn’t be expected to sacrifice their personal desires for their children, her mother is also a woman and has the right to pursue happiness in marrying again if she chooses. On the other hand, there is nothing particularly concrete between Masako and Mr. Kimura besides a genial domesticity, the rumour is partly local wishful thinking in knowing that remarriage is sensible economic choice and the pair seem well suited. Toshiko objects strongly to the idea out of fear, jealousy, and outdated moralising resenting her mother for betraying her father’s memory but also fearing further changes in her familial relationships in an already uncertain world. 

In this her otherwise saccharine closing monologue in which she looks on as her mother plays with Tetsu and wonders if she’s really “happy” achieves its final irony, transgressively undercutting the primacy of the self-sacrificing mother to question the ideology of motherhood itself when it requires women to sacrifice their lives and desires in service of an ideal of “family”. Nevertheless, Mother is among the most ostensibly cheerful of Narusean dramas in the gentle comedy and naturalistic depiction of a warm and loving family committed to compassion, kindness, and mutual support as pathways towards a better post-war future.  


Mother is currently available to stream in the US via Criterion Channel

Composition Class (綴方教室, Kajiro Yamamoto, 1938)

composition class posterChildren’s essay classes can yield unexpected revelations but sometimes it’s the tragedy behind the humour which catches the attention rather than a unique way of describing a situation not fully understood. Composition Class (綴方教室, Tsuzurikata Kyoshitsu) has something in common with the later Korean classic Sorrow Even Up in Heaven or even the more temporally proximate Tuition in drawing inspiration from the diaries of school age children but predictably it’s far less bleak in outlook. Though young Masako (nicknamed Maako) has her share of problems, her troubles are met with characteristic cheerfulness and a determination to carry on no matter what.

In a small town in North East Tokyo, 1938, Masako Toyoda (Hideko Takamine) lives with her parents and her two brothers in a humble home her family can barely afford. Disaster strikes when dad gets a letter from the court which he can’t read – Masako usually reads for him but letters from the court are still too difficult for a preteen schoolgirl. The family are behind on their rent and have heard that someone is trying to buy up the area with other families also facing possible eviction. Bright though she is, Masako might have to give up school and find a job as a maid while the family moves to stay with relatives who own a shoe shop. Luckily, none of that happens because the note was only about a rent increase (on the rent that haven’t paid for months).

The second crisis occurs when Masako’s teacher is taken with the essays she’s writing in class which are so real and honest that they espouse all the values he wants to teach the children. Around this time, the lady from next door, Reiko’s mother Kimiko, is leaving town (and her husband) and so gives away some her breeding rabbits as pets believing that a nice girl like Masako will be sure to take care of them and that they could use the extra money from selling the babies. Kimiko, thinking Masako is out of earshot, remarks that she was going to give some of the rabbits to the local bigwigs, the Umemotos, but even if they’re wealthy, they aren’t very nice and she wouldn’t like to think of her rabbits not being looked after. Masako naively records this minor detail in one of her essays which the teacher then sells to a local magazine. The Umemotos find out and aren’t happy which is a problem because dad gets most of his work through Mr. Umemoto who has a stranglehold on the local economy.

Through Masako’s diary and child’s eye view of the world, Kaijiro Yamamoto paints an oddly relaxed picture of depression era privation as the Toyodas endure their penury with stoicism and a belief the bad times will sometime end. Masako and her family have it a little better than some, but when bad weather puts an end to dad’s tinsmithing business and he’s forced into the precarious life of a day labourer things go from bad to worse. Now out of work more than in, the family are reliant on rice coupons to get by and spend one miserable New Year’s with no money for the first week of January when the biting cold makes it impossible to go out and forage for food. Masako writes of her embarrassment the first time her mother sent her to the shop with coupons and that she eventually got used to it, save for one occasion she ran into friends and had to quickly cover by saying she’d bought rice bran rather than collecting the rice dole. Like Masako, dad is a good natured soul though he’s also fond of drinking and is often let down or tricked out of his money, even being cheated out of his bicycle which he needs to keep working.

Sadness is all around from the man next door who’s so poor he doesn’t even have money for sake to the dejected Kimiko who eventually returns pale, drawn, and barely recognisable only to find her husband remarried to a much younger woman. Though Masako is a bright girl with a talent for writing her future is already limited. At one low point, her mother seems excited about the idea of selling Masako off to a geisha house where she will at least be fed, have pretty clothes, and maybe make a good match with the sort of man who marries former geishas. Needless to say, Masako is not very enthusiastic, and neither is her teacher who pledges to save her from such an unpleasant fate but luckily it never comes to that. Other girls will be going on to high school and university, but Masako counts herself lucky to have got a job in the local factory which will provide a steady income for her family. Though it’s a shame Masako is denied the same opportunities as the other girls because of her family’s poverty, she does at least pledge to keep writing even as she marches happily towards work and a (possibly) brighter future.