Reviews

Japan Cuts Review: Chronicle of My Mother

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[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]

One of the most interesting things about Chronicle of My Mother is that it’s an adaptation of an autobiographical novel by Yasushi Inoue and also a tribute to the films of Yasujiro Ozu. Since I’m not familiar with Inoue’s writing, I don’t know if channeling Ozu is a good fit for the source material. Perhaps there’s something in the voice of the book that suggest the visual style of Ozu. Maybe it’s just a choice by director Masato Harada since Chronicle of My Mother (as a film) is a tale about Japanese families and characters of different generations; Ozu makes sense in that regard. Tokyo Story is even namechecked as two characters talk on the phone.

By mimicking some of Ozu’s style, Chronicle of My Mother fills itself with lush visuals. There’s this play of color and shadow and activity within the frame that’s remarkable to watch, and there’s a complex series of relationships there as well. It’s not a movie full of deep psychological profiles, but I don’t think that detracts from its charm.

Chronicle of My Mother (Waga Haha no Ki | わが母の記)
Director: Masato Harada
Rating: NR
Country: Japan

As I’ve grown older, movies about relationships with parents have a bit more weight, especially about older parents. It might have less to do with my own aging than my parents’s aging. I wonder what they’ll wind up doing once they retire (if that’s even a possibility), how they’ll act, and what my obligations will be to them. I wonder if any grudges will persist and if I’ll learn little secrets about their lives. It’s probably common for a lot of people around my age to start thinking about these things seriously. I also wonder, as they grow older, what they must think of me.

Chronicle of My Mother opens with a middle-aged writer named Kosaku (Koji Yakusho) lingering on a memory of abandonment. It’s a pivotal moment from his childhood and something for which he’s never forgiven his mother. We follow Kosaku’s family from 1959 to the early 1970s, beginning with the death of his father. In their last moments together, Kosaku’s father does something that leaves his son somewhat confused. It’s not necessarily a catalyst for the movie, but it does help trigger ideas of identity and belonging, both of which are central to the film’s observations about family.

We’re told by those close to Kosaku that he takes after his father so much in mannerisms and appearance. Kosaku’s mother (Kirin Kiki) is another story — there’s a noticeable distance. Yet that sense of distance is part of what drove him to be a writer. Maybe to help address this abandonment (or because of it), he surrounds himself with women as personal assistants and secretaries, and he mines the lives of his daughters for his books. The latter could be his way of showing his family that he cares even if he’s overbearing. Kosaku seems to have a special affinity for Kotoko (Aoi Miyazaki), his youngest and most headstrong, even when she disobeys him.

I’d mentioned that Chronicle of My Mother isn’t a movie of deep psychological portraits, but it’s not a bad thing necessarily. The depth of motivation and thought are often more easily conveyed in a novel rather than a film. What we get instead instead are sympathetic portraits, nostalgic portraits, and emotionally resonant portraits. Much of this is conveyed through the three leads, Yakusho, Kiki, and Miyazaki. Yakusho and Miyazaki have most of the heavy lifting in the film. What makes Yakusho especially good is his ability to communicate his mood through little shifts in expression. A nod can mean a lot, and the same can be said of a tightening at the corners of his mouth. Miyazaki does a keen trick of maturation, going from school girl to woman over the course of two hours. It’s not just the pigtails, there’s a change in her overall demeanor.

Kiki’s an interesting performance of senility and sympathy. She’s losing touch with what’s real and yet she always feels very deeply. Kiki rarely plays the histrionics for laughs and isn’t too enfeebled when she’s showing her fragile mental state. There’s a sense of reality to both kinds of moments. To an extent, she’s a bit one note, but I think there’s something about characters who are broad but well rendered that’s important, which I’ll address at the end.

A big help to these portraits are those Ozu visuals and Harada’s play with his compositions. The film feels nostalgic, and not just because it takes place 50 years ago. Chronicle of My Mother is like a memory of a family, everything viewed with the same sort of fondness you’d give to a family photo album. Many times the shots are composed in these zones of cool colors and warm colors, or activity and stillness, shadow and light, so it’s possible to read a lot into each shot. The negative spaces help draw attention to characters, and little camera moves try to offer the sort of depth of feeling that can’t be conveyed through performance alone.

One character says the grandmother’s senility is half real and half an act. That may be a good way to sum up much of the feel of Chronicle of My Mother. Lots of it is composed in only the way that a movie can be — it’s an act, it’s artifice. And with this artifice is this sense of real emotion. It’s conveyed in those shots of light and dark and activity and inactivity, and even just interesting compositions that isolate figures. I think of one early shot where Kotoko and her sisters play a frantic card game and giggle all the while as, in a separate zone of the frame, the grandmother sits quietly and sadly, the first signs of senility beginning to take hold.

This sort of brings me back to the idea of broad characters. When they’re brought to life by capable actors as they are in Chronicle of My Mother, it allows for a certain amount of audience involvement. By that I mean the viewers can read some of their lives into these characters — what it is to be a parent, a child, a grandparent, a grandchild, and so on. In the early part of the film where they discuss Kosaku’s similarities to his dead father, I couldn’t help but think of the time my dad had a major health scare and how I spent a worried night looking at a mirror trying to identify every facial feature of his that I’d inherited. These are both cliches, but they are both something true. And I think about my grandmothers, and the weird distances I’ve felt from my parents, and that strong love for my mom.

In How Fiction Works, the literary critic James Wood wanted to rethink the idea of “roundness” and “flatness” when it comes to characterization. Sometimes so-called flat characters present greater dimension than so-called round characters. It’s all about how characters give us a glimpse into something truthful. Sometimes those broad strokes contain subtleties of action, and that’s where we find things that move us. In the case of Chronicle of My Mother, the images and the performances become spaces where it’s possible to locate our own families.

[Chronicle of My Mother will be screening at The Japan Society on Saturday, July 21st at 6:00 PM. This is part of Japan Cuts’s focus on actor Koji Yakusho, which starts with The Woodsman and the Rain on Friday, July 20th at 7:00 PM. Yakusho will be in attendance at the screening of The Woodsman and the Rain and Saturday night’s screening of 13 Assassins.]

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.