August 1, 2021

“The Mother”, by Mikio Naruse, masterpiece of a seismograph of the soul

Okaasan (“Mother” or “mother”) is that charming ritornello that we hear coming out of the mouths of children, young and old, who inhabit Japanese films. The mother is, in fact, for Japanese cinema a crucial character, often statuified as a pillar on which rests the life of the home, immolating herself for her family, always making a good figure, pure adjunct to the existence of others and monster of infallibility – in short, a superhuman model, a chimera.

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In the film that Mikio Naruse dedicates to her in 1952, once the war and the defeat have passed, she is no longer exactly the same, but rather a kind of lookout who holds the boat of the whole household, and also a witness who sees the lives of those close to him pass before his eyes, keeping the secret register of the family sealed in his heart. This masterpiece, which was part of the first salvo of Japanese films distributed in France in the 1950s, is released in theaters and in a restored version.

“The Mother” belongs to one of the most fruitful type of stories in Japanese production, namely the family chronicle.

The mother belongs to one of the most fruitful type of stories in Japanese production, namely the family chronicle, a subtle barometer of fading lives and changing times, tied to the rituals and cycles of everyday life. In an outlying district of Tokyo, Masako Takahara (Kinuyo Tanaka) runs a small donut stall during the day while waiting for her husband Ryosuke (Masao Mishima), known as “Popeye” for his ability to handle irons, sets up his own laundry .

Read also: The extraordinary journey of actress Kinuyo Tanaka

She also has four children in her care: in addition to a sick and bedridden elder, a flower girl named Toshiko (Kyoko Kagawa), and two toddlers, including a little boy in her care by a ruined aunt. Once the business is established, the life of the home becomes indexed to its vagaries, between fussy customers and unexpected blunders. The husband’s turn to fall ill, leaving Masako to take control of their affairs alongside a convicted assistant, a certain Kimura (Daisuke Kato) says “Uncle prison”.

Neighborhood life

Written by the queen of social melodrama, Yoko Mizuki, and narrated by the character of Toshiko, who opens up to love by posing a tender and sometimes merciless gaze on her mother, the film’s first success is the restitution of all the depth of neighborhood life, through the continuous waltz of secondary characters. The result is a bouquet of infinitely varied scenes which play on the wide range of feelings, always mixed up, always contradictory.

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