"Every film is a social documentary", Andre Bazin once wrote. To wit: none of the writer-director Yoji Yamada's 75 films are documentaries, yet you'd be hard-pressed to find a nonfiction film to match the sustained, evolving portrayal of Japan present in his filmography from the 60s to the present. In domestic dramas and the year-in, year-out installments of the long-running, beloved Tora-san comedy series — even in his recent trilogy of samurai movies — Yamada attends to social rituals and everyday habitats, making his career something like a family photo album, with commensurate sentiment and, often, instant nostalgia.
Kabei: Our Mother, a homefront saga spanning from the middle days of the Manchurian campaign to the early days of the war in the Pacific, is, like Yamada's Twilight Samurai, narrated retrospectively by a reverent daughter. But rather than embalming the past in sepia, Yamada's stories, distinguished by placid lighting and clean compositions, his films, at their best — like Kabei — make virtues of all the adjectives you've learned to be suspicious of.
Yamada also embeds social critique in his homelife tapestries. Like Mikio Naruse's Mother, Kabei: Our Mother is about the admirable endurance of a quietly martyred woman. After her professor hubby is imprisoned as a "thought criminal", "Kabei" (Sayuri Yoshinaga) raises their two daughters with a little help from the community, extended family, and friends (notably, as one of dad's former students, Tadanobu Asano, Japan's Johnny Depp, doing specific, tweedy slapstick, for populist giggles). She also effaces herself amid the slings, arrows and hectorings of disapproving authority figures, and the casual jingoism of a belligerent imperial power (when she finally collapses of exhaustion at her job as a teacher, it's during an all-school song of imperial praise). There's often some overlap between those pitching in and those condemning — like the professor who lectures her on her husband's behavior, while lending him books to read in prison. Yamada's dialogue doesn't leave much to subtext, and the scenarios tug at heartstrings in a very basic, way but his view of human nature (and social pressures) is complex, and of a piece with his simultaneous bitterness towards Japan's imperial, hierarchical past and affection for that past's look and feel.
The way Yamada visualizes that past looks familiar, recalling its contemporaneous cradling in the hands of Yasujiro Ozu, the greatest of all photo-album filmmakers: the camera is generally kept at the eye level of someone sitting on a floor mat; family meals are framed by sliding wall panels. Yamada prefers long shots, with the family all together in the frame — mother is never showy about her travails, and so rather than hammer us with her lined face Yamada affords Yoshinaga only sparing close-ups; his lead actress, too, delivers a touchingly modest performance as a heroine whose strength is her deference and perseverance. Life, as it does in Yamada’s films, simply goes on. We only pity her on her deathbed, at the film's flash-forward conclusion - although we also wonder about the sadness of the moment. What about the postwar years: did the intervening decades offer any chance for happiness and new beginnings? But perhaps, like most artists preoccupied with the passage of time, Yamada is more attuned to a sense of irretrievable loss.