My Little Sweet Pea (Mugiko san to)
Japan (2013) Dir. Keisuke Yoshida
Being a parent isn’t easy and neither is being a child who grows up without one in their lives. Obviously there can be a number of reasons why this should be but what muddies the waters is not knowing the truth behind these reasons.
This gentle drama from Keisuke Yoshida takes a look at the effect of living in the dark about an absent family member, in this case the mother, Saiko (Kimiko Yo). Three years after the death of her husband, Saiko shows up unannounced at the small apartment of her children, Mugiko (Maki Horikita) and her older brother Norio (Ryuhei Matsuda). Saiko begs her kids to let her stay with them but her unpredictable behaviour soon drives Norio out to live with his girlfriend.
In Norio’s absence Mother and daughter seem to struggle to get along, despite Saiko trying her hardest, as Mugiko has no memory of her mother. A few weeks later after a small fight, Saiko dies, apparently being in the later stages of liver cancer. After the funeral Norio says he can’t attend the burial in Saiko’s home town, leaving Mugiko to make the journey alone. When she arrives Mugiko learns from the locals all about her mother.
It isn’t until halfway through the film that we learn everything that occurred after the opening credits was in fact a flashback leading up to the curious opening scene, in which everyone seems to think they recognise Mugiko because she is the spitting image of her mother as a young girl. In a series of amusing vignettes Mugiko can’t travel even a few feet without someone being stunned by her appearance, which isn’t helped by taxi driver Imo (Yoichi Nukumizu) nearly running people over because he can’t believe his eyes.
The structure of the first half is a little offbeat and haphazard, skipping forward in time as if Yoshida is in a rush to get the small town setting. It’s often comical in tone, not laugh out loud funny but gently amusing – such as Saiko having the loudest alarm clock in the world which wakes everyone except her! This carries over in small part to the second half but soon makes way for a more sobering and dramatic tone, nothing too heavy but Mugiko goes on a predictably emotional journey.
Similarly predictable is how Saiko’s hometown is a step back in time to the days of tradition in comparison to the glossy bustle of Tokyo, where Norio is a laconic pachinko obsessive while Mugiko works in a manga store, harbouring dreams of becoming a voice actress. But, small town Japan is always a welcome setting to let us foreigners get to see the wonderful heritage of the country and the genuine personalities of the people.
They include the local inn keepers Haruo (Gadarukanaru Taka) and Natsue Aso (Eri Fuse), whose layabout son Senzo (Amane Okayama) bullies money from his mother, and the clerk at the funeral parlour Michiru (Yumi Asou). This kindly divorcee takes Mugiko in when she doesn’t have her burial permission form and is forced to stay in town a bit longer.
At first they bond and Mugiko even opines that she wished Michiru was her mother, but after learning she has children whom she never sees, Mugiko starts to resent Michiru’s reticence and excuses for making contact. She is effectively projecting the anger built up towards her mother, whom she refers to as “that person”, onto Michiru since Saiko is no longer around to face the music.
But the more Mugiko hears about the popular town idol Saiko, how all the men were in love with her and that she left town to follow her dream of becoming a singer, the animus begins to ebb away, marking a step towards maturity for Mugiko. It is as if Yoshida has channelled his inner-Ozu for this half of the film, the drama being rather low-key and underplayed – even when the conflict between Mugiko and Michiru arises, everything remains civil and even tempered.
Such refusal to be drawn into the over-sentimental melodramatics the subject matter practically demands is what makes the viewer appreciate this exploration of its themes and emotions. It is arguably one of the things Japanese cinema does better than anyone else, creating a unique subgenre of uplifting melancholy, very much a key factor in the heart-warming effect Yoshida engenders here.
Maki Horikita was apparently the first and only choice for the role of Mugiko and Yoshida should be thankful he didn’t have to cast someone else. Also doing double duty as the young Saiko, Horikita carries the film in essaying Mugiko’s emotional growth from single-minded otaku dreamer to someone with a newfound mature outlook on life. Already a twelve year veteran actress at age 27, Morikita nuanced revealing of the many layers of Mugiko’s complex character is a testament to her rare talent.
Also a young veteran at 32, Ryuhei Matsuda is barely featured here as the indifferent and lazy Norio, but the role is another change in direction for this versatile actor. Kimiko Yo is also given relatively brief screen time as Saiko, but creates a uniquely infuriating but quietly sympathetic character, the foundation for which is shared among her home town folk. Yumi Asou as Michiru is the most “regular” of the lot, a similarly burdened soul with a family shaped hole in her life.
By taking in the examples presented in this tale – Mugiko’s missing childhood memories of her mother, the distant relationship with her brother and the situation with Michiru – one comes away from this film wanting to re-examine their own attitudes towards their relationships with their parents, all achieved subliminally and without didactic intent.
To that end Yoshida has constructed a deceptively poignant film out of familiar premise with My Little Sweet Pea, getting plenty of mileage from it in the process. Nothing groundbreaking but suitably easy going lazy afternoon entertainment.