Simultaneously sentimental and meta, director Mikio Naruse’s Mother depicts a period in the life of Masako Fukuhara (Kinuyo Tanaka) as narrated by her teenage daughter Toshiko (Kyôko Kagawa). Forced to take over the family dry-cleaning business after the death of her husband, Masako attempts to cope with her daughter’s rebellious behavior while also supporting her sickly son Susumu (Akihiko Katayama), now confined to a sanitarium. Toshiko, meanwhile, harbors suspicions that her mother is falling for her Uncle Kimura (Daisuke Katô)—fondly nicknamed “Uncle Prisoner” after his time as a POW in Manchuria—even as she herself starts to feel the first stirrings of love and passion. The mood throughout is, rather surprisingly for Naruse, almost sickly sweet, but there’s clearly a self-awareness to Mother, nowhere more evident than in the director’s brilliant use, during a movie-within-the-movie sequence, of a “The End” intertitle that rather harshly defuses the sentiment on display. Indeed, the characters seem acutely aware of the influence that populist art has on their lives; one of them even states, when speaking of a local movie-house offering, to “Bring your handkerchiefs.” Self-reflexivity can only take a film and its makers so far, so it’s no surprise that Naruse finds a perfect object of attention in Tanaka, her every gesture permeated with a truthfulness that counteracts even the most melodramatic of situations. Though Mother isn’t one of Naruse’s best, it does contain one of his finest closing images in which an exhausted Masako brushes back an errant strand of hair while Toshiko immortalizes her in poetic voiceover.
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