The toxic hyper-masculinity of the yakuza world conspires against a sensitive young man who longs to reclaim his place in society through reuniting with the mother who was forced to abandon him at five years old in Tai Kato’s hugely moving jidaigeki, In Search of Mother (瞼の母, Mabuta no Haha). Adapted from a kabuki play by Shin Hasegawa, Kato’s wandering tale is perfectly tailored for post-war concerns situating itself in a world of mass displacement, economic inequality, and lonely regret in which the secrets of the immediate past have become a threat to the promise of the near future which may then in itself prove unrealisable.
As the film opens, 25-year-old Chutaro (Kinnosuke Nakamura) is trying to stop his hot-headed friend Hanji (Hiroki Matsukata) from taking revenge on a rival gang on behalf of their boss who is to them something like a father figure. Chutaro reminds Hanji that he has other ties and should think about the mother and sister who wait for him in his hometown to whom he should return and attempt to live an honest life, the possibility of which Chutaro is deprived because he is an orphan with no home or family to turn to. His pleas fall on deaf ears, Hanji reminding him of the code by which they live. “What’s going to happen to my pride as a man?” he exclaims, later telling his mother “I’m not a man if I don’t accept their challenge”. “If that’s the case then don’t be a man” she counters, physically preventing him from leaving as if Hanji were a still a child but to him it seems life is not worth living if you are not accounted a proper “man” by the values of the society in which he lives. When Hanji’s sister Onui (Hitomi Nakahara) attempts to plead for him, the gangsters explain to her that they are trapped too, they cannot return without fulfilling this debt of honour. “That’s not how it works miss, if we let him go after he attacked our boss we won’t be able to survive in our world.”
Just as Chutaro searches for his long lost mother in order to reclaim his place in mainstream society, he is pursued by the gangsters desperate to redeem themselves through revenge. Eventually arriving in Edo by winter, he adopts the rather unscientific tactic of stopping every middle-aged woman he comes across and asking her if she might once have had a son. The first of these is a blind shamisen player whom he witnesses being cheated by man who makes a point of dropping the coin he was to give her back in his own pouch to make it sound like he paid when he didn’t and then getting indignant when he she calls him on it. The woman gives her age as 50 though looks 20 years older and relates her own sad story of widowhood and a son she had to give up but is not Chutaro’s mother. In any case he gives her a large amount of money out of a kindness he might hope someone would show to his own mother were they in his position.
He does something similar with the next woman, Otora (Sadako Sawamura), a sex worker, like him ostracised by the world around her, who had a son who died in infancy and is now rejected by a judgemental society for doing the only thing she can to survive. Kato films each of these poignant moments in long unbroken takes tinged with the desperation and loneliness of two people looking for something from the other which in the end they are not able to give each other only find relief in their shared sorrow. Nevertheless the encounters also expose the difficulties faced by women in this era in which they must be dependent on men, the shamisen player suffering in her widowhood and Otora left with no choice than to engage in sex work which then exiles her from society at large just as Chutaro is rendered an outcast because of his yakuza past yet as he later explains what else could a child without parents have done?
This is something which might press heavily on the minds of a post-war audience in which the plight of war orphans and otherwise displaced children was all too familiar. In terms of cinema, the yakuza is often presented as a surrogate family in which orphaned boys can replace unconditional love with the mutual solidarity of a brotherhood defined by highly codified existence. Yet Chutaro longs to repair his connection to mainstream society by finding his mother, carrying around money he has saved in order to help her should he discover that she, like Otora and the shamisen player, is living in poverty. What he did not consider, however, is that she may reject him. Acting from a tip off from Otora he pays a visit to a local store run by Ohama (Michiyo Kogure) who unlike the other women has been able to build an independent life for herself and is preparing to marry off her daughter Otose (Keiko Okawa) to a wealthy merchant’s son. When Chutaro first appears, she assumes he is a conman fed information by Otora, admitting that she once had a son by his name but was told he had died in an epidemic when he was nine. Just as we’d seen her reject Otora lest she expose her sex worker past, she rejects Chutaro in fear that his yakuza ties will ruin her reputation, wreck her daughter’s marriage, and disrupt the comfortable life which she worked so hard to create just at the moment of its fruition.
“You are suspicious of people because you have wealth” Chutaro points out, making plain the various ways in which economic inequality continues to disrupt the bonds between people. As we discover, Ohama was forced to abandon him because his father was abusive. In that era it would not have been possible to take her son with her and so she made her peace with leaving him but despite herself is now conflicted on witnessing him crying in front of her like a child while afraid to acknowledge him lest it disadvantage her daughter. The problem here is not that her past is shameful or a secret, Otose knows she had an older brother, but the fact that Chutaro has become a yakuza with judgment unfairly placed upon him for simply doing what he could to survive without parents to care for or guide him. Too late, Ohama realises she has made a terrible mistake. She and Otose go out to look for Chutaro but either too hurt by the rejection or having come to believe that he cannot escape his yakuza past, he lets them pass him by resigning himself to the fate of a lonely wanderer. Shot entirely on stage sets more often from mid-height rather than his characteristically low perspective and with additional fluidity mimicing Chutaro’s restless sense of displacement, Kato’s take on this classic tale is a profoundly moving examination of the effects of oppressive social codes on even the most essential of connections.