Set in the 1930s and 40s, Kabei: Our Mother chronicles a family in Japan whose father gets arrested for thought crimes during the lead up to WWII. The Nagomas and their young daughters live in Tokyo. They seem a genuinely loving, humble, happy family made human by some small money trouble. Then the father, a scholar, is arrested for writings that questions Japan’s invasion of China.
The story continues showing the strength of each character and those who come to offer help. The film manages to convey the best of Japanese mores without painting a halo around each character, which would make them honorable and untouchable. Here everyone’s feet touch the ground.
So many scenes stand out. For example, a rough and tumble annoying uncle comes to visit. He walks into town where some matrons are exhorting people to give up luxury goods. They get personal and chastise two young girls who’re dressed nicely. The uncle gets in the middle of this defending the girls and saying in his boisterous way that there’s nothing wrong with a girl looking pretty. The women turn on him since he’s wearing a gold ring, which they think he should donate to the army. Fat chance, this guy’s not going to do that. He manages to give them the slip as they call the police.
Though she’s the title character and a strong presence, the mother doesn’t take center stage. (Westerner works need a star, Japanese works need quiet relationships, the harmony of wa.) I see this as an ensemble film and each character is memorable and important.
Like an Ozu film, Kabei is full of scenes that are funny and touching. It’s full of what Barbara Nicolosi calls Haunting Moments, scenes and images that stay with you well after the credits roll.
I learned quite a bit about one facet of the effect of WWII on Japan.