Mother (MOTHER マザー, Tatsushi Omori, 2020)

“Everything about my life has been wrong anyway. But is it wrong to love my mother?” the wounded hero of Tatsushi Omori’s gritty drama plaintively asks, and in his case it’s a complicated question. Inspired by a real life case in which a young man murdered his grandparents, Mother (MOTHER マザー) asks how and why such a thing could have happened and points its fingers firmly at corrupted maternity in the form of its extremely toxic matriarch Akiko (Masami Nagasawa) whose twisted, possessive “love” for her children makes them mere victims of her narcissistic emotional abuse and constant need for validation through male attention. 

Our first introduction to Akiko finds her ditching work to meet her young son Shuhei (Sho Gunji) on the way home from school, inappropriately licking the graze on his knee like a grinning mother cat. She then drags him to her parents for an awkward family meeting, her mother refusing to meet her gaze everyone aware she’s there to extort more money from them which, contrary to her promises of having a well paying job lined up, she will almost certainly blow on pachinko. Her father takes pity on them and gives Shuhei a few notes on the sly, but it’s not long before Akiko has decamped to a nearby video arcade which is where she meets Ryo (Sadao Abe), a host from a host club in Nagoya with whom she begins a steamy relationship. Deciding to return with him, Akiko dumps Shuhei with Ujita (Sarutoki Minagawa), a local council worker she’s been flirting with to get her child support benefits sorted out, and takes off. For unclear reasons, however, Ujita declines to let Shuhei stay in his home, leaving him in Akiko’s apartment which has no access to hot water and eventually no electricity seeing as she almost certainly neglected to pay the bill, meaning he can’t even heat up the packets of instant noodles Ujita bought for him either eating them dry or visiting the local combini. 

At this point, Shuhei is a young child who knows no other life and of course loves his mother. Though she emotionally abuses and manipulates him, he has no real choice not do what she says, including agreeing to lie when she and Ryo attempt to blackmail Ujita by threatening to accuse him of molesting Shuhei while they were away. She wilfully uses his cute kid appeal, sending him alone to badger her parents for money (which they refuse), or tap his estranged father for extra cash for a “school trip” even though Akiko hasn’t let him go to school in months and has already blown the child support he sends every month on pachinko. Yet however much he’s beginning to resent the way she uses him, she’s still his mother and there’s a twisted kind of love there along with a toxic co-dependency that locks them into a constant cycle of need and resentment. 

That’s not to say there aren’t ways out. Every time the glimmer of a better life appears, Akiko’s self-destructive impulses kick back in. A teenage Shuhei (Daiken Okudaira) gets a job as a welder with a kind man who can see his family’s struggling and wants to help, but Akiko can’t let go of Ryo who is apparently on the run from debt collectors. The same thing happens again after the family become homeless, a well-meaning social worker, Aya (Kaho), helping to get Shuhei into a catchup education program for others like him who’ve missed out on schooling for one reason or another, but Akiko doesn’t like anything that reduces her influence over her children and fails to understand Shuhei’s desire to at least be as knowledgable as other kids his age. She tells him that no one likes him, that he’ll be bullied wherever it is he goes, that only she will tolerate him and though he can see it isn’t true, no one is mean to him at school and his social worker is actively trying to help him, he can’t help believing her lies. 

They’re my children, I can do with them as I wish Akiko repeatedly snarls at those who attempt to interfere, viewing Shuhei and his younger sister Fuyuka (Halo Asada) more like minions than kids raised to do her bidding as tools or extensions of her own will yet as unable to cope without them as they are without her. Sympathetic social worker Aya, herself a survivor of childhood abuse, reminds Shuhei that he has the option to separate from his mother but he remains unconvinced. Ironically, her mad, cack-handed plan for riches will eventually separate them in her incitement to violence, Shuhei perhaps in a sense relieved knowing the state will take better care of him than his own mother ever had and perhaps he’ll even be allowed time to read, but he loves her all the same and continues to protect her despite himself hopeful only that his younger sister will escape the same fate. Is it wrong to love a mother whose “love” for you is at best toxic? Perhaps not, but it is in its own way a tragedy all the same. 


Mother is currently available to stream via Netflix in the UK (and possibly other territories)

International trailer (English subtitles)

All the Things We Never Said (生きちゃった, Yuya Ishii, 2020)

The broken dreams of youth and middle-aged malaise push a trio of former high school friends towards existential crisis in Yuya Ishii’s melancholy exploration of emotional distance,  All the Things We Never Said (生きちゃった, Ikichatta). Commissioned as part of the B2B A Love Supreme project created by the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society and China’s Heaven Pictures which tasked six Asian filmmakers with the task of proving that high quality films can still be made on a micro-budget, Ishii’s latest finds him in the same register as his poetic take on urban angst The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue as his frustrated protagonists each pay a heavy price for the seeming inability to communicate their true feelings honestly. 

Opening with an idyllic scene of three high school friends enjoying a breezy summer day, Ishii cuts abruptly to the present, interrupting the wistful love song playing in the background mid-flow. Now in his 30s, Atsuhisa (Taiga Nakano) is a married father whose only dream is to be able to afford a nice house with a garden for his wife and daughter, maybe even get a dog. To this end, he’s been taking lessons in English and Mandarin with high school friend Takeda (Ryuya Wakaba) with the intention of one day starting their own business though they once dreamed of becoming musicians. All of that comes to nothing, however, when he begins to feel dizzy at work one day and returns home early to find his wife, Natsumi (Yuko Oshima), with another man. Unable to offer any real sound of protest, he accidentally smashes a panel on the glass door to their bedroom, apologises for interrupting, and leaves in a daze to pick up his young daughter Suzu (Yuno Ota) from school. 

Natsumi’s infidelity evidently comes as a complete surprise, though it seems obvious that their marriage is far from perfect. “My life is just stress and getting fatter” Natsumi openly complains to Takeda, her sense of inertia and impossibility seemingly more than simple dissatisfaction with her life as an ordinary housewife. For his part, Atsuhisa is as emotionally distant as they come, a near silent zombie dead eyed and permanently absent from himself. He is continually preoccupied by the absence of his late grandfather, now nothing more than an increasingly anonymous photograph on an altar as if he never existed at all. Atsuhisa asks himself if his grandfather really lived as a way of avoiding the same question in himself as he sleepwalks through a conventional life that proves infinitely unsatisfying while he chases elusive dreams of comfort and security. 

Natsumi’s revelation that she’s been completely miserable for the entirety of their married life because she’s never felt loved likewise shocks him, but if her intent was to provoke emotional honesty in her husband it fails. She pushes him to fight, to offer some kind of resistance but he simply accepts her decision to end the marriage. The sense of impotence is palpable, Natsumi turning off the TV set because she can hardly do anything about the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi so what’s the point in knowing about them. “How else can we live?” someone else later adds, other than to simply decide not to think about the things you cannot change. Atsuhisa tells himself that it’s meaningless anyway, it will all “fade away” in the end so there’s no sense in trying to resist. 

Yet he continues to struggle, wondering in a sense if he could perhaps claim agency over his life if only he could learn to communicate his true feelings honestly. He asks himself if it’s because he’s Japanese that he can’t, if his culture actively prevents him from speaking freely when it comes to desire. Of course, everyone else is Japanese too which perhaps makes his question moot, but those around him do indeed seem to suffer from the same sense of wilful repression, even Natsumi tragically withholding her real feelings and ultimately working against herself out of a mistaken sense of guilt. “You don’t love me, that’s why you can be honest” an ex of Atsuhisa’s points out during an emotional farewell, cutting to the quick in suggesting that his problem is that he fears the risks of emotional intimacy. 

Two boys and one girl is always going to be a story tinged with a degree of sadness no matter how it turns out, but on that idyllic summer day no one could ever have thought it would end like this. Takeda, manfully keeping his true desires under wraps perhaps in love with Natsumi himself but too diffident to have said anything or overly mindful of his friends’ feelings, does his best to be the emotional buffer supporting both halves of a couple rapidly spiralling away from themselves but is ultimately unable to prevent them from making decisions they may regret even as they are are made. “My love wasn’t good enough” Atsuhisa laments in his inability to make it felt, finding proof of life only in absence through the memory of those shining summer days. A little rough and ready around the edges but filled with a raw poetry Ishii’s melancholy drama puts its hero through the emotional wringer but in the end perhaps sets him free to speak his heart even if others are too ashamed to look.


All the Things We Never Said streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Under the Open Sky (すばらしき世界, Miwa Nishikawa, 2020)

“Am I too unhealthy to live in society?” asks the hero of Miwa Nishikawa’s Under the Open Sky (すばらしき世界, Subarashiki Sekai) of his doctor, but the only answer he gets is a wry chuckle and an exhortation not to be so “pessimistic”. Inspired by Ryuzo Saki’s 1993 novel Mibuncho, the first of Nishikawa’s six features to be adapted from secondary material is in many ways a typical Showa-era story, testifying to the fact that the world has not changed as much as we might have hoped in the intervening 30 years since Saki’s novel was published, but it’s also a lowkey condemnation of the quiet hypocrisies which continue to define our notions of civility in the story of a man who was perhaps too good to survive in our “society”.

Opening with bars and heavy snow, Nishikawa introduces us to Mikami (Koji Yakusho) as he nears release after serving 13 years in prison for killing a man in what is described by the authorities as a yakuza gang war, though Mikami is keen to point out that he’d already attempted to leave the yakuza by then and the killing was mere self defence. In any case when questioned by the officers about to release him, he admits no remorse over the man’s death only that he lost 13 years of his life over “that hoodlum”. In any case he’s thrown out into the cold, boarding a bus back into the city where he vows to go straight. Once there, however he discovers the outside world to be fairly inhospitable. Not only are the skills he learned in prison next to useless when it comes to finding employment in the contemporary economy, but he must also contend with societal prejudice and his own wounded pride.

Stepping for moment into the realms of the issue movie, Nishikawa explores the relative impossibility of re-entering mainstream society as someone who has been convicted of a crime. Having spent most of his adult life in and out of prison as a petty yakuza footsoldier, Mikami has little education and no marketable skills aside from his capacity for violence and the ability to drive, something of which he is now deprived because his licence expired while he was inside and to get it back he has to start from scratch by passing the new-style two-part test. Mikami’s life is indeed a typical post-war story, abandoned to an orphanage by his geisha mother from which he later escaped and ended up joining a gang in place of the family he never had. “Prison is the only place that won’t kick you out no matter how badly you behave” he later quips, accidentally laying bare his yearning for unconditional love found only shakily in yakuza brotherhood.

Yet that old-fashioned, post-war yakuza is an outdated institution, like Mikami himself a relic of the Showa era floundering in the late Heisei society in which gangsters wear sharp suits and have fancy offices, finding more sophisticated ways to make war with each other than open thuggery. Everybody wants out, Mikami later muses to himself, but it’s hard to fit in to society and those like him find themselves drawn back towards the vagaries of the yakuza life for all the dubious certainties it continues to offer them. His lawyer and guarantor Souji (Isao Hashizume) tells him that he needs to regain his love and trust of people, but that’s a tall order when it feels like no one loves you and they make a point of letting you know you’re not forgiven. Even a simple trip to the supermarket proves traumatic when the head of the local neighbourhood association who just happens to run it decides to pick him up for shoplifting just because he knows he’s an ex-con. Thankfully he later realises his mistake and is filled with remorse, moved by Mikami’s quiet dignity in asserting his innocence and right to shop as he pleases. 

For all that, however, Mikami is a man of violence who has known no other way of life, taught that his only acceptable emotional release lies in pain and destruction. His violence is, however, for the sake of others not himself. He does not become violent with the store manager Mastumoto (Seiji Rokkaku) who later becomes his friend, but gleefully confronts two punks hassling a terrified salaryman and teaches them a minor lesson in the way only an old hand can. This other side to his otherwise childishly naive character shocks frightens Tsunoda (Taiga Nakano), a TV director Mikami had approached with the intention of being featured on his show in the hope of tracking down the mother who abandoned him, who engages in some armchair psychology to imply that the source of Mikami’s rage lies in his alienation as a rejected child. The irony is that Souji, his wife (Meiko Kaji), Matsumoto, and Tsunoda become Mikami’s new “family”, replacing that he’d looked for in the yakuza and providing a grounding in mainstream society that allows him to shed his anger, but the compromise they ask of him is in itself soul crushing in its implications to the extent that his complicity with it is no redemption but a moral failure. 

If such is the price of civility, Mikami may have a point, perhaps it isn’t worth it. In the end, it is our world which fails to live up to his goodness, his violence a result of society’s continued indifference to human suffering. He is no more free outside the walls than in, constrained by an unforgiving emotional austerity that permits injustice in the name of harmony. If you can’t protect the ones who’ll save the flowers from the storm, then what is your freedom for? Subverting a well worn redemption narrative, Nishikawa finds a wealth of kindness in a broken world, but suggests it’s not enough save us until the world itself is redeemed. 


Under the Open Sky streams in California until Oct. 31 as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)