A deeply unsettling drama about emotional abuse and family
Rhea Srivastava -
The last significant Japanese movie I saw (and forgive me, I haven’t seen too many in the past few months) was Hirozaku Kore-eda’s ‘Shoplifters.’ ‘Shoplifters’ is a deep exploration of what constitutes a ‘family’ if one is brought together in unconventional ways. Whether society accepts these alternative constructs, it is more important to note that it’s often the normal ones that are usually dysfunctional or abusive, sometimes emotionally and sometimes physically.
What is the story about?
‘Mother,’ not to be confused with several other high-profile titles of the same name, takes this exploration to the next level with a real family. And boy, is it dysfunctional. A young mother deals with raising her son on her own, and then eventually a daughter. She lies, steals, and scams her way through men to pay for her whims, leaving her children with years of emotional abuse and pain. It is almost unfathomable, the level of cruelty displayed by Akiko (Masami Nagasawa) towards her son Shuhei, and yet, the young boy doesn’t leave her side (a common side effect for children growing up in such abusive families).
The main premise of ‘Mother’ is based on an actual incident that took place in 2014 so the film seems perhaps more unsettling and shocking than expected. But we know that we aren’t watching a true-crime documentary… this is still a fictionalized version of true albeit brutal events. Narrative wise, the film’s approach is stoic and precise. The story is seen through the eyes of young, quiet, and impressionable Shuhei as he experiences a bad childhood being raised by a bad parent. There is no unfortunate backstory or secret that veils her misdoings. Akiko lives her day-to-day by the money that she manipulates off others for her own benefit. She treats her kids like her possession and shows them or others little compassion. We, and Shuhei, feel constantly on edge about what may happen to the kids at the next minute.
And yet, placing the perspective almost solely through Shuhei, we reach the emotional core of the story. This young boy sees how his mother’s erratic behaviour affects her and his life, but he sticks to moving with her from one project to another. There is no sentimentality in his blind support, but a piercingly harsh emotional truth of unhealthy attachment and toxicity.
The issue remains even as Shuhei moves into teenhood later in the film and starts to resurrect his life with the help of a kind-hearted social worker, Aya (Kaho), a figure who could possibly show the boy what motherhood should really be perceived as. Circumstantially, however, Aya’s presence is shortlived and Shuhei’s belief that he still likes his mother sheds light on how fear of abandonment and psychological trauma is so intrinsically part of his system now.
A film like ‘Mother’ really needs strong performances because they are literally all we rely on to connect to the story and the characters. Hana Kino comes in as Akiko’s disappointed and exasperated mother. Nagasawa has a certain dramatic presence throughout the film, but it is Kaho as Aya who breaks your heart in her small but important role as the figure who could have lent the support and buoyancy to Shuhei’s life. Shu Gunji as Shuhei too is a fantastic actor who serves as the subdued lens with which we need to view this story to really resonate with it.
Music & Other Departments
The film has been shot competently and uses minimal score due to the serious nature of the story.
There is an authenticity to how the cyclical abuse by Akiko towards Shuhei unravels as they scavenge their way out of their low-income life. The life that Akiko leads is most bizarre and yet we buy her need to make it that way because the brokenness of the family seems so palpable. This could be attributed to the director’s strong vision and perspective, as well as the cast that helps elevate the material.
Netflix very rightfully tags ‘Mother’ as a slow burn. Before this statement is taken as presumptuous, very often films of this nature have pacing which can borderline on boring. ‘Mother’ is not boring but it is so depressing and glum, and its characters so vile, that you pray that it could go just a tad bit faster.
Did I enjoy it?
‘Enjoyment’ might be the wrong word, but the film certainly gets its point across. It’s emotionally draining in a satisfying sort of way.
Do I recommend it?
Yes. If you like Japanese cinema, then ‘Mother’ is a good addition to that canon. And even if not, it’s certainly a powerful film on any watchlist.