Mother (2020) by Tatsushi Omori

A destructive mother-son relationship is put under the microscope in this shocking drama. Akiko (Masami Nagasawa) drags her son Shuhei (Sho Gunji/Daiken Okudaira) around with her, using him to garner sympathy with family to extort money from them. Shuhei bears his mother’s unpleasant attitude, carrying out her orders without complaint. When Akiko falls into a relationship with an equally unlikeable host, Ryo (Sadao Abe), Shuhei’s life gets even more difficult. Ignored and abandoned by his mother, he is forced to fend for himself. His mother and Ryo later return without a word of apology; but their relationship also goes off the rails when Akiko reveals she is pregnant. As the years go by, Akiko seems incapable of changing or showing any kind of affection towards her children. When they are found sleeping rough, they are approached by a charity working with homeless and impoverished individuals which may offer Shuhei an escape from his tragic life.

Written by director Tatsushi Omori with Takehiko Minato, “Mother” is confrontational and shocking in its unflinching portrayal of Akiko and Shuhei’s relationship. Akiko is a deeply unpleasant and unredeemable character, an abusive and negligent mother, and her treatment of Shuhei is often difficult to watch. Masami Nagasawa delivers a breathtaking performance as Akiko, both repulsive yet compelling at the same time. The character arrives fully formed and we are given no more than faint hints of the cause of her behaviour. It would be almost impossible to sympathise with this character, but Nagasawa makes the character understandable if you pay close attention to certain conversations, mannerisms, and actions throughout. There are definite indications of mental health issues, a selfishness and desire for attention driving her behaviours, along with a paradoxical protectiveness of her children despite her own exploitation of them. Shuhei is portrayed by Sho Gunji and Daiken Okudaira, who both do an incredible job as a child growing up without a positive role model, lacking in confidence, who is nevertheless devoted to his mother. The film’s unrelenting portrayal of a truly horrific experience for Shuhei is its strength as it offers no easy answers, but instead challenges the viewer with a situation that is sadly based firmly in fact. The script builds on each tragedy, piling horror upon horror for Shuhei as Akiko moves from one mistake to the next. Tatsushi Omori’s direction brings us in to the heart of the action with a gritty realism. It also allows the film’s themes space to percolate, with powerful lingering shots on specific moments that stand out as turning points in the relationship between Akiko and Shuhei.

“Mother” is a film that shuns sentimentality to deliver a dark story of parental abuse. While it takes its story to extremes, the most shocking realisation is that the relationship depicted is far from uncommon. It explores the significance of a mother-son relationship and the damaging effects of negligent and exploitative parents. It raises questions about Akiko’s past: Shuhei’s lack of a father, her relationship with her own parents and sister, and what factors might have contributed to her behaviour and amoral outlook on life. Akiko is both victim and abuser, caught in a cycle of neglect and passing on her traumas to her children. However, none of these things excuse or ameliorate her actions. In the selfless characters of the charity worker (Kaho) the film does offer some hope of a better future for children who are otherwise failed by their parents and a largely uncaring system. The importance of education and housing for children who are struggling, and help for people suffering mental health issues. A distressing yet worthwhile film that puts uncomfortable issues into the spotlight.

Memories of Matsuko (2006) by Tetsuya Nakashima

Sho (Eita) is something of a dropout, having moved to Tokyo to be a musician, he is stuck in a rut. His father (Teruyuki Kagawa), who he hasn’t seen for two years, arrives to tell him that his aunt, Matsuko (Miki Nakatani), has died. Matsuko was apparently murdered in a park. Sho arrives at her apartment to clear out and is met by her neighbour who tells him Matsuko was disliked by those around her, with poor hygiene and odd behaviours, including screaming for no apparent reason. Sho is intrigued by his aunt’s story and so begins a journey of discovery as we are whisked back in time to follow the young Matsuko through several decades of her life. Beginning as a child competing for her father’s affections with her ailing sister; then a short-lived career as a teacher; Matsuko goes through a number of violent relationships, always searching for happiness and a sense of belonging.

“Memories of Matsuko” is artistic, vibrant, and exuberant, blending elements of fantasy and musical sequences with moments of brutal realism. The plot is cleverly constructed, with flashback sequences and the wraparound story of Matsuko’s nephew delving into his aunt’s chequered past. It never loses momentum and the two elements work well together. The film will often have characters describe something that happened, and then go back to show it, creating an expectation of upcoming events. Far from undermining the tension, after all the audience knows from the beginning Matsuko’s fate, it heightens a feeling of tragic inevitability. Miki Nakatani’s performance is exceptional, a complex character dealing with trauma and tragedy. The direction is frantic, flashing imagery and bright, varicoloured sets, blinding lights glinting through windows. The opening sequence and the massage parlour musical number are an assault on the senses and there is always the feeling that you are being shown Matsuko’s own view of particular moments in her life, part real-life and part coloured by her emotions. The set design of filthy, rubbish strewn apartments, the digitally enhanced fantasy funfair, are superb in creating a visceral, impactful sense of the psychological made manifest. Part of the film’s brilliance is being able to move seamlessly between various tones. There are dark themes of domestic abuse and parental neglect, alongside comedic scenes and moments of transcendental joy and hope.

This film is a masterclass in film-making, creating a truly unique experience that is engaging from beginning to end. As Sho delves further into his aunt’s colourful and atypical life, he learns what it is to live and to love. Matsuko seems to be a victim of fate, moving from one abusive relationship to the next, and seeing any happiness she finds snatched away from her. There are references to Dazai Osamu, famous author and suicide, that connect to the central themes of struggling to find a meaning or purpose for life, while being on a self-destructive path. This is counterbalanced by the religious notions, most notably embodied by the character who carries around a Bible and is obsessed with the phrase “God is love”, that seems to offer a more hopeful outlook for humanity. It is hard to break down everything in the film as it is so packed with incidence, touching on societal issues such as the sex industry, patriarchy and male violence, faith, mental health, relationships, family, and the nature of memory. An incredible experience that utilises the art of cinema to tell a compelling film packed with raw emotion.

Parks (2017) by Natsuki Seta

Jun (Ai Hashimoto) is struggling to come up with a thesis for the communications professor on her socio-cultural studies course. By a quirk of fate she bumps into Haru (Mei Nagano), who is searching for her grandfather’s former sweetheart from letters she discovered after her passing. The two girls set out to find this woman and soon meet her grandson, Tokio (Shota Sometani), who tells them that she has also recently passed. The three discover an old incomplete recording of a song that the old couple had written and recorded together and decide that they should write the rest of the song, which they later decide to perform at the upcoming music festival in the park.

The thin plot, languid pacing, and gentle, non-confrontational atmosphere of the film is much like spending a pleasant afternoon sitting in a park, watching the world go by. Much of the film is set in and around the park, the green space offering a soothing backdrop to the drama, along with the melodic score. While there are romantic undertones with the historic story, this tension is not there in the leads, which is refreshing to see. Instead they are just three young people enjoying youth and finding their way in the world. The film features a couple of sub-plots, one involving an elderly friend of Haru’s grandmother and one relating to Jun’s past as a child star, that are underused. Instead the plot is centred on the three young adults and their quest to rediscover the past and understand the relationship of Haru’s grandfather and his former girlfriend through the fragments that are left. All three leads are supremely likeable and play well off one another. Shota Sometani delivers a comic performance as the energetic, nerdy Tokio; Ai Hashimoto and Mei Nagano have good chemistry as the new friends, balancing a wistful melancholy about the passage of time and the joyful experiences of youth.

“Parks” was commissioned as a celebration of the 100 year anniversary of Inokashira Park and the film’s themes of conservation and time emphasise a feeling of respect towards the place. It perfectly captures the atmosphere of parks as multi-generational spaces, brimming over with memories and individual stories. The trees and waters of the park offer comfort in giving people a sense of perspective. The film portrays this sense of living both with and apart from the past by having Haru step into her grandfather’s story in several moments of magical realism. “Parks” is an experiential film that hits all the right notes and captures the emotive, transcendent atmosphere of these spaces. The themes of reconnecting with the past, the power of music, the passage of time and finding peace and purpose, are all beautifully articulated. A relaxing watch with great performances from the leads and a calming, contemplative atmosphere.

The Mourning Forest (2007) by Naomi Kawase

Machiko (Machiko Ono) has recently started work at a nursing home for the elderly in rural Kansai. It is revealed in flashback that she has lost a young son in an unspecified accident after letting go of his hand, something for which her partner cannot forgive her. One of the care home residents, Shigeki (Shigeki Uda), is a man struggling with dementia whose wife died thirty-three years ago. Shigeki struggles with outbursts of emotion and anger, especially when Machiko attempts to move his bag. A priest visiting the home tells them that thirty-three years after death a person will become one with Buddha, and therefore will be unreachable by the living. Machiko and Shigeki develop a relationship that grows warmer as time progresses and she decides to take him on a day trip. When the car breaks down, the two are stranded in the countryside. Shigeki leads her on a long hike through the woods, during which they both process their grief.

“The Mourning Forest” is a heartfelt look at death and the effect it has on those left behind. It is explained later in the film that “Mogari” (in the Japanese title) refers to not only the period of mourning, but the place of mourning. For Machiko and Shigeki, the journey through the forest is a metaphorical journey through grief to acceptance. We learn little about Machiko’s son and Shigeki’s wife, and there is a palpable emptiness at the heart of the film that perfectly captures the feeling of bereavement. The sequence in which Shigeki plays a duet before being left along with the plaintive notes of his solo melody ringing out in the dark perfectly typifies this sense of loss following the death of a loved one. The performances from Machiko Ono and Shigeki Uda are raw and believable. Machiko is a character putting a brave face on her loss, attempting to find reason for living. Even in his confusion, Shigeki senses that something is missing from his life. The priest early in the film explains that living has two meanings, not only physically existing but feeling and experiencing things. It is often the case that people close themselves off from the world following the passing of a loved one. In their arduous hike through the forest, Machiko and Shigeki, experience hardships and suffering as well as positive moments, and it is all of these combined that contribute to a sense of living. The film features some stunning cinematography, particularly in the shots of the natural world, whether a butterfly hovering above a stream or the towering trees of the forest. There is a gentle piano score that compliments this sense of a rural idyll, and a natural world that can be both beautiful and terrifying.

The film will not be for everyone. At times it is slow and ponderous, often with little dialogue, focussing on the cinematography, score and acting to tell its story. The dark themes, of loss and mourning, also make it a tough watch. However, the film’s gentle contemplation of death is handled well and the beautiful direction and superb acting make it worthwhile for those looking for something with deep meaning and resonance.

Distance (2001) by Hirokazu Koreeda

“Distance” begins as the anniversary of a terrorist attack poisoning Tokyo’s water supply is approaching. The attack, which killed hundreds and injured thousands, ended with the cult members responsible committing suicide. Four individuals, partners and relations of the cult members, make a pilgrimage on this anniversary to the lake where they died. Kiyoka (Yui Natsukawa), a teacher whose husband joined, meets up with Minoru (Susumu Terajima), whose wife also left him to become a member. Along with Atsushi (Arata Iura) and Masaru (Yusuke Iseya), whose brother and sister respectively took part in the incident, the four of them head to the lake, driving deep into the forest. While there they meet Sakata (Tadanobu Asano), a former member of the cult who fled before the others went through with their plan. When they return to their car they find it has been stolen, along with Sakata’s bike, and the five are forced to take refuge in a nearby house that was used by the cult.

Writer and director Hirokazu Koreeda excels at bringing the best out of his actors. Within a few short scenes or snatches of dialogue we are completely invested in their characters. Whether it is Atsushi with his girlfriend, or the scenes in which the four meet up, they are able to capture the essence of who they are with a shorthand and chemistry that make their relationships believable and engaging. All of the central performances are pitched perfectly as they deal with the layers of guilt, loss and regret, all while attempting to continue with their lives. Koreeda’s realist approach to can be seen in the dialogue which feels natural, getting across information without feeling weighed down by exposition. There are several long takes, such as Kiyoka with her husband and Minoru with his wife, in flashback, where we see the advantage of giving characters room to breathe. In Minoru’s scene in particular there is a sense of helplessness to his situation that is emphasised by the extended scene. Where others may cut away when the central message has been communicated, that his wife is leaving to join the cult, we are put right in his shoes as he rages confusedly about this, unable to walk away from the situation as the scene becomes increasingly uncomfortable for both him and the audience. Koreeda also uses hand-held camerawork to take us inside their world, stripping away the artificial nature of film to create something more documentary-like in style. The film also features interview segments with most of the protagonists, with them being questioned by the police after the events, that stand in stark contrast to the scenes in the forest, from  a static angle with the characters dead centre. This helps get across the message of life as messy and at odds with the world of law and order as typified by the police.

The film is loosely inspired by real-world events in which cults have committed terrorist acts. Rather than going for an obvious critique of such groups, Koreeda instead focusses on those surrounding the members. The film asks difficult questions about why people join such cults, but also whether their friends, partners and family should or are able to stop them. The responsibility for these acts must ultimately reside with the individual, but we see through the story of Atsushi that there may be warning signs that are missed and that catastrophe might be averted. It investigates the notion of societal as opposed to personal responsibility. The film is infused with this melancholy and sense of regret that nothing was done to stop them. It is also interesting to note that the central characters are not victims of the attacks, but relatives of the perpetrators, and in the case of Sakata someone actively involved in the cult. It is a film that provokes thought on these subjects without offering any easy answers. We see in the character of Minoru that his ignorance, perhaps lack of care, about his wife may have contributed to her joining the cult. Similarly, Atsushi is shown to be distant from his brother. At heart “Distance” is a film about dealing with tragedy and seeking understanding and redemption. The title also suggests a sense that people remain isolated from one another, even those who they believe they are closest to, and ponders whether it is ever possible to really know somebody. The interview scenes are reminiscent of “Rashomon” and the film can be read as an investigation of the nature of truth, with the police representing the supposed objective reality and the characters experiences and reminiscences a more subjective understanding of who these individuals were. A beautifully crafted film with incredible acting that takes the audience on a journey into the dark and unexplored regions of human psychology.