Kinuyo Tanaka claims her warmest, most universal role, as Masako Fukuhara, the hardworking middle-aged matriarch of Mikio Naruse’s moving family chronicle Okaasan, written by Yôko Mizuki. Her extended family, which includes a young nephew as her widowed sister tries to find her financial footing in postwar Japan, seems in perpetual flux: Masako’s older son, Susumu, and demoralized husband, Ryosuke, both die (offscreen, thereby shortcircuiting sentimentality); her younger daughter, Chako, moves in with relations, who lost their son in the war, to fill in their loneliness and ease her now widowed mother’s financial strain. Toshiko, Chako’s older sister, is terribly upset, but her mother, philosophical, attributes her own remarkable fortitude to the fact that she also was moved into another home as a child by her parents.
1950; the Fukuharas live just outside Tokyo, in a working-class district. Susumu, whose loneliness and despondency over his impending youthful end causes him to return home after fleeing the sanatorium, contracted tuberculosis in the upholstery shop where he worked: a symbolical imprint of the U.S. occupation. (Setting the action two years back makes this unmistakable.) The Fukuharas finally have their confiscated land returned to them, enabling them to restart the family laundry; Ryosuke dies shortly after. With assistance from a repatriated prisoner of the Russians, Masako perseveres. Exit “Mr. P.O.W.”; enter a new member of her extended family: Masako’s 16-year-old apprentice, who, homesick, is shown at the last writing his own mother a letter. Life devastates and goes on.
One of the most poignant passages shows the family in a rare recreational mode at an amusement park. The occasion: Chako’s imminent departure. In another episode, Toshiko’s modeling of a traditional wedding dress, mistakenly interpreted, temporarily dashes her boyfriend’s hopes.
Ozu and De Sica have influenced Naruse’s wonderful piece of neorealism.
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