Twists of fate


POSTED: Friday, May 08, 2009

Japan's growing rapprochement with the days of World War II continues with “;Kabei: Our Mother,”; the story of one family's travails in the early days of the conflict. Unlike films like “;Yamato”; that delve equally into horror and glory, “;Kabei”; is an unsettling psychological examination of a nation given over to “;thought police.”;





        Not rated

Opens today at Consolidated Kahala Theatres






It's 1940, and Japan has been caught up in the China conflict for several years; the assaults on the European and American powers are still off in the future. Things haven't gone badly yet, although there is rationing. Worse, the nation has been swept up in groupthink—and when you think Japanese, you think peer pressure. Girls wearing lipstick are chastised for being unpatriotic; referring to the conflict in China as a “;war”; instead of a politically correct “;crusade”; can land you in jail.

That is exactly what happens to Shigeru, head of the family household and a mild-mannered scholar who runs afoul of the government for thinking in “;unapproved directions.”; He's bundled off to jail one night, and the family must make do.

They get fairly useless help from Yama, a former student of Shigeru's and an embittered member of the underground intelligentsia, but the family grows fond of him as Shigeru grows more and more distant. Although Yama becomes a stand-in father-figure, it's Kayo the mother—nicknamed “;Kabei”;—who has to hold the family together; not easy because it consists of two rapidly maturing girls and a muttering, drunken and lovable uncle who's apt to speak his mind in front of the police.

The story is based on the memoirs of Teruyo Nogami, the youngest girl, and rings true in its frank and unsentimental look at the psychological underpinnings of fascist ideology. It's rare that you hear wartime Japanese planning world conquest as if it were their right—and these aren't wild-eyed ideologues; they're friends and neighbors. That's the scary part.

Directed by Yoji Yamada, veteran of a million Tora-san movies, “;Kabei”; ambles along on a fairly predictable path once the premise has been established, helped quite a bit by terrific art direction and pitch-perfect performances. But then, near the end, Yamada throws in a horrific bit of plot twist that stands the movie on its head, philosophically. Depending on your mood—it's a bit of political back-stabbing from an unexpected, and troubling, direction—you'll either be angered at being manipulated or moved to tears because you've been successfully manipulated.

The whole movie becomes a clever bit of storytelling sleight of hand. It also tells us that life can go in unexpected directions, and that's quite an accomplishment in a film about thinking in “;unapproved directions.”;