One of the few Naruse works distributed theatrically in the West,[1] MOTHER is a peculiar, almost conceptual project that operates out of the stance of the sentimental family drama. Based on a real schoolgirl’s prize-winning essay about her family,[2] the film relates the postwar travails of the mother (Kinuyo Tanaka) of the Fukuhara family from the perspective of her teenaged daughter Toshiko (Kyoko Kagawa). Filled with fragmentary and digressive scenes, MOTHER is perhaps Naruse’s most Fordian work in its use of music and voiceover to create a level, retrospective mood. Naruse and writer Yoko Mizuki (their first collaboration) also mimic Ford with the comic broadness of the juvenile romantic leads, including Eiji Okada from HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR as Toshiko’s suitor.

For much of its length, the film seems a skillful but conventional instance of its openly sentimental genre, with the deaths of both the family’s adult men establishing an elegiac tone in the opening sections. The departure of key characters is generally set up early then delayed with interpolated subplots, so that Naruse and Mizuki can suspend the film in the contemplation of inevitable loss. The emotional subject doesn’t suppress Naruse’s prankish surrealist side, however. As a warm-up, he introduces one scene with the image flipped upside-down, quickly revealing the shot as the point of view of children looking from between their legs. Then, at the 60-minute mark, Naruse plays his most famous and hilarious surrealist joke: the printed title “The End,” complete with soundtrack music swelling to an abrupt conclusion, is shown to be part of a movie-within-the-movie that Toshiko and her aunt attend. Even at this late stage of the film, though, we may wonder what place such disruptions may have within a relatively straightforward genre piece.

Only in the final third does the series of losses accumulate into a pattern of abstraction. Naruse and Mizuki establish the film’s intentions slowly, lighting the fuses on slow-burning plot threads that detonate unpredictably to create groupings of absences. Eldest daughter Toshiko becomes tormented that her mother might remarry with Kimura (Daisuke Kato, making the first of 17 Naruse appearances), the gentle ex-POW who helps run the family’s laundry. Our idealized narrator cannot be talked out of her jealousy, and destroys what seems like her mother’s best chance at happiness, in an unstressed but clear challenge to the genre’s conventions. The most moving subplot belongs to the family’s youngest daughter Chako (the excellent Keiko Enami, soon to play the young Anju in SANSHO THE BAILIFF), who fears that her mother doesn’t love her – and then the mother adopts her out to another family! The scenes between the mother and the stoically suffering little girl hit the theme of duty hard, with Chako asked to endure great deprivation for the happiness of others. (In the film’s finest scene, Chako briefly persuades herself to embrace the ideology of sacrifice, only to dissolve in anger and tears when Toshiko lashes out at her.) But Naruse’s direction plainly questions the mother’s position, most unsettlingly in our last glimpse of Chako, sitting at a little table in her adoptive home, looking at a watercolor portrait of her mom then putting it away. One can make a more persuasive case than usual that Naruse’s complication of MOTHER’s ostensible message of duty extends to outright subversion.

As the pattern of characters dropping away from the narrative infuses the empty angled shots of the family home with a ghostly quality, MOTHER starts to recall those war movies where the platoon dwindles to a man or two. Or perhaps a better comparison is to vacated-center films like POINT BLANK or THESE ARE THE DAMNED, given that even the mysteriously afflicted mother is marked for an exit.

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[1] Jacoby, “Mikio Naruse,” Senses of Cinema.

[2] Russell, The Cinema of Naruse Mikio, 236-7.