Japan (2020) Dir. Tatsushi Omori
Not everybody has it in them to be a parent. Giving birth to a child doesn’t automatically make someone a parent, and neither does loving their children – or convincing them they do. As sad as this sounds that isn’t always enough, and it is the child who suffers the most.
Akiko Misumi (Masami Nagasawa) is a single mother to Shuhei (Sho Gunji) but without a shred of responsibility in her. Always gambling, drinking, and hooking up with random men, Akiko often leaves Shuhei to fend for himself for days on end, and relies on him to bail her out of trouble. When Akiko begs for money from her mother Masako (Hana Kino) and sister Kaede (Kaho Tsuchimura), she is refused for not paying back previous loans.
Whilst at the pachinko parlour Akiko meets chancer Ryo (Sadao Abe) and they hook up. An attempt to blackmail a city hall employee goes horribly wrong and the trio flee, ending up living in a love hotel. Akiko discovers she is pregnant and Ryo walks out on them. Five years later, Akiko, Shuhei (Daiken Okudaira), and little sister Fuyuka (Halo Asada) are living on the streets until social worker Aya (Kaho) helps them out.
There are already a number of films in existence with the title Mother and they tend to explore the unwavering love a mother has for her child. In this offering from Tatsushi Omori, this theme is present but tenuous, as the love that Akiko says – or believes – she has shown Shuhei isn’t what we see, prompting us to question her definition of “love”.
Cinema is also home to many unfit parents where the kids get our full sympathy but how the children react varies. In this instance, we find ourselves watching a very frustrating story of filial piety that is both commendable and misplaced. It’s a bleak discourse on being a product of your environment, where hope is fantasy and not reality, through stubbornness, ignorance, and emotional manipulation.
Playing out like an inverse Koreeda film, though often comparable to his heartbreaking Nobody Knows, there is no innate whimsy to be found from this dysfunctional family unit. Akiko confounds the audience within the first five minutes by appearing as a fun loving if slightly maverick mother, only to reveal her true colours moments later during the aggressive row with her family.
Ryo is the catalyst for Akiko’s downfall. Claiming to be a club host but always in debt, he has the morals of a Venus Fly trap, treating both Akiko and Shuhei shoddily. It is a relationship that only makes sense to them as nothing is given to the audience to help us understand; even when it gets unbearably toxic and Ryo is violent towards Akiko, she still stays with him and continues to put her faith in him.
16 year-old Shuhei still stands by Akiko and is more of a parent to Fuyuka than Akiko is, as if Akiko resents her birth for causing Ryo to leave. Luckily Aya helps them back on their feet, sending Shuhei to a special catch-up school for teens and finds them a very tiny room to live in. Yet Akiko, still only loyal to her hedonism and laziness, resents Aya’s interference, and rejects her help at every turn.
Like a bad penny, Ryo resurfaces and it’s like he has never been away for Akiko, not so much for Shuhei and Fuyuka. Naturally, trouble is again on the horizon and they are back on the streets. Akiko’s trust in Ryo remains vexing but is consistent with her character, though no background is given as to why. Something clearly has made Akiko irresponsible but with knowing what, we only see a woman with askew self-esteem.
Shuhei’s devotion to Akiko is equally mystifying. Despite years of abuse and constant disappointment, he still loves her, yet Akiko never reciprocates, or lets Shuhei grow up, denying him an education. Akiko’s rationale is she gave birth to Shuhei so she’ll raise him as she sees fit. It isn’t until almost 90-minutes into the film that somebody finally tells Akiko she is an unfit parent and roasts her for her selfishness, but the change it brings doesn’t last long.
I take no pleasure in informing you that it actually gets worse from here with a shocking development I won’t share but is horrifically indicative if Akiko’s self-absorbed persona. And the kicker? It is based on a real event from 2014. This is both alarming and tragic, but the cold reality is people like Akiko unfortunately exist, and at the risk of misreading or stereotyping the culture, Shuhei is perhaps a reflection of the Japanese sense of loyalty, for better or for worse.
Omori knows he has a story that is low on nuance and doesn’t even pretend to insert any into the presentation. The direction is blunt, the colour palette is muted, and the lighting natural, whilst the camera remains impassive at all times. Most of the violence happens off screen but the sound is enough to create discomfort, only the intrusive and often inappropriate musical score occasionally ruins the mood.
Both the young actors playing Shuhei, Sho Gunji and Daiken Okudaira, are fabulous and create a consistent portrayal of the poor lad between them, I just hope they didn’t find it too traumatic. Usually cast as the radiant nice girl, it might seem odd to see Masami Nagasawa play someone as dark and irredeemably unpleasant as Akiko but it’s a challenge she meets head on as mesmerises from start to finish with this impeccable performance.
Mother is unapologetic in its raw and frank essaying of a desperately unsettling tale of poor parenting, and Omori is canny enough to know it is a subject that isn’t meant to entertain but to provoke thought, discussion, and awareness. There are times the characters seem a little one-note even by the end but that simply adds to the impact of their inconceivable actions. A devastating film.