Although at first blush far removed thematically from his Samurai trilogy, Yoji Yamada’s “Kabei: Our Mother” has many of the same elements. This is a tale of how the wife of a Japanese professor imprisoned in 1940 for “thought crimes” struggles to raise her two young daughters under the most difficult of circumstances. It is a searing attack on the authoritarianism and stupidity of a social system that retained many of the feudal traits of the period depicted in the trilogy. It is also an embrace of the decency and the courage of humble people being crushed underfoot by a system operating through a combination of repression and intense social pressure. At the age of 78 and now having made his 74th movie, Yoji Yamada demonstrates once again his kinship with such members of the great humanist tradition in filmdom shaped by radical politics—including his countryman Akira Kurosawa, Senegal’s Ousmane Sembene and India’s Satyijat Ray.
Sharing the meager circumstances of the underemployed Samurai of the trilogy, Teruyo Nogami (Miku Sato) is a one-time philosophy professor fallen on hard times. He is 3 months behind on his rent and has just learned in the opening scene that his latest book has been turned down by a publisher. Unlike most of his countrymen swept up by the ultranationalist fervor of the ruling party, he opposes the invasion of China and has the courage of his convictions to say so publicly. He has the misfortune to take philosophy’s teachings seriously, a flaw not shared by fellow academics who learn to get along with the system, just as they were doing in Nazi Germany.
A day or so later, he and his family are woken in the middle of the night by a pounding on the door. The cops have come to investigate a “thought crime” and pour through his books and papers looking for evidence. Convinced that Nogami is a traitor, they tie him up with rope, take him to police headquarters, and throw him into a holding cell. The other prisoners, discovering that he is some kind of “red”, try to make him as comfortable as possible.
Unlike her husband, Kayo Nogami is apolitical and only has the hope that he will be released from jail and returned to the happy if impoverished household that they share with their two children, a 12 year old girl named Hatsuko and her 6 year old sister Teruyo who provides the narrative and point of view throughout the film. As such, the film evokes Fellini’s “Amarcord”, another film about life under fascism seen through the eyes of a child. Unlike “Amarcord”, the emphasis is less on lyrical youthful evocations (although there is much of that) than it is about injustice and the struggle for dignity and freedom.
Indeed, Teruyo Nogami was a real person and this film is based on her semiautobiographical novel about her wartime experiences. Although the film does not make a point of this, the adult Teruyo Nogami worked with Akira Kurosawa for over 40 years in different capacities, including supervising the script of “Rashomon”. As alluded to above, Kurosawa and Yamada are kindred spirits.
Before the Japanese state had converted itself into an authoritarian war machine, Kurosawa traveled in CP circles as a youth. Some of his early student works were “socialist realism” exercises. After WWII began, he went to work in the Japanese film industry turning out propaganda films that glorified test pilots and female factory workers. Unlike Teruyo Nogami, Kurosawa succumbed to social pressure.
But one assumes that his early training in socialist realism acquitted him well, just as it did American CP’ers in the film industry. Kurosawa was extremely rueful about his role in all this. Perhaps shame motivated his desire to create a new kind of film for postwar Japan, one that would criticize a society that had become adrift. Although it no longer celebrated martial values, it still lacked a higher purpose. His youthful leftist beliefs combined with his family’s aristocratic sense of ‘noblesse oblige’ led to the creation of distinctly Kurosawan type of film, one in which a lone individual struggled to define a personal ethos against a callous and self-centered society.
Clearly, Kurosawa’s celebration of the selfless Samurai hero attacking a vicious feudal system and Nogami’s novel about WWII repression resonated with Yamada’s own values and experience. Program notes for a Yamada film shown at the Film Forum in 1982 stated that he was “’a member in good standing of Japan’s Communist Party”’ and usually tried to make some reference in his films to man’s disaffection with society.
In a January 31, 2008 interview with the Japan Times, Yamada was asked: “Kaabee is set in the early 1940s, but its themes, including the suppression of dissent, still have relevance today. Was that your main reason for wanting to make this film?” He replied:
What attracted me first was the childhood memoir by Teruyo Nogami. Her father was actually arrested under the Peace Preservation Law (which had the goal of clamping down on communists, labor activists and opponents of Japan’s militarism) and spent time in jail. That’s what Japan was like in 1940 and 1941, but Japanese today don’t know this. I wanted to rekindle their memories. Those were frightening times, when Japan started the Pacific War with an unstoppable wave.
Can we say the same frightening, out-of-control forces that started that war are absent from Japan today? In 1945 we made what was supposed to be a strong commitment to peace. But now (certain forces) are trying to change the “peace Constitution.”
Japan should have remained the one country in the world with no military and a prohibition against war (in the Constitution). Now Japan is going along with America and the Bush administration. I have doubts about whether that’s right.
For those who want to see film-making at its best, as well as a celebration of the values we cherish in our own struggle with another barbaric social system, a visit to the Quad Cinema in New York is not to be missed.