With this film, director Yoji Yamada joins the pantheon of distinguished Japanese antiwar films that includes such classics as Imamura’s Black Rain, Ichikawa’s Harp of Burma and Fires on the Plain, and Kobayashi’s monumental trilogy, The Human Condition. Yamada, whose work has only recently been available in the US (Twilight Samurai, Love and Honor), has enjoyed a long and immensely popular career in Japan. Like many of his early successes, Kabei Our Mother is a sentimental tear-jerker that tugs at the viewer’s heart strings while delivering a political message. The film begins in 1940 at the time of the second Sino Japanese war. Emperor worship and ultranationalism set the stage for the emergence of a military clique that demanded unquestioning patriotism while ruthlessly suppressing dissent. Shigeru Nogami is a professor who has written critically about the war in China. He is arrested for "thought crimes" and taken off to prison, where he remains for the rest of the film. His wife, Kayo, is forced to carry on alone raising their two daughters (nine and twelve years old). Her struggle to make ends meet, keep alive hope and optimism in her children, and to resist those who urge her to abandon her husband’s principles (including her father) forms the dramatic kernel of the story. Yamazaki, a former student of Nogami’s, bonds with the family and acts as a kind of surrogate father in his mentor’s absence. As the story unfolds the tide of the war turns, ending in the bombing of Hiroshima and the Japanese surrender. As might be expected, the outcome brings much sadness, but the mother and her daughters survive. Yamada handles this material with great delicacy, and draws compelling performances from the actresses who play Kabei and her daughters. As a story of women coping with the tragedy of war, it ranks with de Sica’s Two Women. Yamada’s recent emergence onto the US film scene is an event greatly to be welcomed. —Dale Miller, Amazon.com
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Heartwarming film based on a true story set in Japan during the war
Former 10th Grade English Teacher
Kabei: Our Mother (2008)
Kabei is based on the memoirs of novelist Teruyo Nogami. Set during WWII in Tokyo, the film follows Kayo Nogami (called Kabei by her daughters) and her two daughters, Teruyo and Hatsuko (called Teru-bei and Hatsu-bei), as they struggle to survive after their father, Shigeru (called Tobei), a professor, is jailed for thought crimes after writing essays critical of Japan’s imperialist actions in China.
The film is an excellent example of Confucian filial piety and the idealized role of women in modern Japan, as Kabei remains loyal to her jailed husband, pitting her against her own father and community. Two characters help the family through this experience—Shigeru’s sister, Hisako, and his former student, Yamazaki (Yama-chan). Both reveal the limited choices afforded to individuals in wartime.
The importance of the concept of gambaru, which can be roughly translated as being resilient and working hard against the odds, is also portrayed through the film. Kabei and her daughters struggle through work and school and the increasing scarcity of food and creature comforts caused by the war with almost no complaint. This is due to Kabei’s excellence as a role model—the perfect mother and wife.
Other cultural concepts present in the film include interesting commentary on honne (true feelings) vs. tatemae (public face). The head of the neighborhood block, who publically has to support the government, privately helps Kabei by giving her extra rations of wood and other goods. In addition, there are moments when the characters are putting forth a good face, but glimpses of their true feelings can be seen—shown most prominently in scenes where Kabei visits her husband in jail, and her interactions with her father and Shigeru’s superior. It is also a wonderful example of the level of comfort and affection that can be experienced within the family unit. The bittersweet ending reveals how even the greatest shows of loyalty belie the deepest feelings.
Use in the Classroom
This film not only serves as compelling commentary on modern life in Japan, but it also shows the struggles of those who did not support Japanese imperialism and doubted Japan’s ability to dominate Allied forces. It could serve as a complement to other works, such as Wings of Defeat, which reveal that many Japanese doubted victory could be achieved. It would also be a pleasant, yet realistic contrast to learning about the horrors of war detailed in works such as The Rape of Nanking. As the film follows the seasons as the family waits for their father to be released, viewers can also witness how the seasons are revered in Japan.