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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Rachel in Her Search after Her Missing Child
by Donald Levit

Shochiku Cinema Company productions are predictably family oriented, while that “most Japanese of all directors,” master Yasujiro Ozu, harped on the disintegration of his nation’s traditional family values. Based on a Yasushi Inoue autobiographical fiction, Masato Harada’s Chronicle of My Mother/Wagahaha no Ki combines the happy-tearful former with a quarter-century (and more) of family change along with a tip of the visual hat to Ozu and a thematic one to Ingmar Bergman, whose The Virgin Spring is in fact mentioned in a humorous misapprehension.

Japan Society’s Japan Cuts Focus on Koji Yakusho includes the actor’s presence to receive the organization’s first Cut Above award. Earlier carrying away Montreal’s Special Grand Prix, “unabashedly emotional” CMM is a warm drama for an audience older than that at most of the festival’s “pervy . . . out-of-control eccentricity” offerings.

The bulk of this just-less-than-two-hours New York premičre is chronological, 1959-73 or so, although a more distant past informs the present and is remembered or misremembered in words. Too, soon-forgotten opening frames of two women and children across a wooden alley of the past in driving rain, return at the very end, now understandable.

Kosaku Igami (Yakusho) moved from idyllic Izu to Tokyo long ago and keeps wife Mitsu (Moriko Akama) on her toes and their four daughters in line and at work pasting proof sheets into his bestseller novels and sometimes poems, for which he mines the entire family for characters and subject fodder. The teens chafe only mildly, and the wife is supportive though puzzlingly guarding from him the crucial secret of his childhood.

His married sisters Shigako and Kuwako (Midoriko Kimura and Kaho Minami) also realize how he writes but do not complain, either. That is, until after their father’s death, when Shigako takes in mother Yae (Kirin Kiri) and after a year simply cannot put up with the elderly, increasingly senile woman’s strange habits. The surviving parent is brought to live at Kosaku’s, is kidded by her granddaughters about an early love, insists on carrying around the family funeral register -- its gift debts should be balanced, says the author-son -- all the while slipping deeper into dementia.

Grandma leaves her nighttime bed to prowl with a flashlight, like a child looking for its mother, the girls say. But, mindful of when she “abandoned” him to grandpa’s mistress Granny Nui, Kosaku edits that to “a mother looking for her child.”

Such is the story occasionally narrated, always with forbearance and humor, by aspiring photographer daughter Kotoko (Aoi Miyazaki). Not the advertised tyrant but more a man used to having his pampered way, father nurses a scar from what he remembers as being left behind when he was five and the others sailed to wartime Taiwan. He is not disrespectful or impatient with his birth mother, although neither is he loath to having her move out to their mountain house, to be cared for by Kotoko and his personal assistant-driver, Segawa (Takahiro Miura), nicknamed “Snail” by the giggly girls for his slowness to declare in the field of love.

Autumnal landscapes dominate with, however, too obvious an emphasis on gurgling stream water and, briefly, the sea, which poet father notes is a metaphor for death but which is more a token of cyclical life that returns to its origin the same as an opening lucky amulet is in the end returned to its giver.

There is of course, and always, sadness, but as the oldest generation disappears, to leave its immediate offspring as the new elders, understanding comes and brings wisdom and grace. Avoiding easy mawkishness, Chronicle of My Mother conveys mother-to-son and son-to-daughters generational torch-passing. Small bickering and secrets and mourning are subsumed, while the young set out but with a fond backward glance. As the New York Asian Film Festival has it with regard to somewhat parallel A Simple Life, “this is what it looks like when a human life drifts away. . . . Watch carefully, because one day it’s going to happen to us all.”

(Released by Shochiku Company; not rated by MPAA.)

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