Screens at CIFF: 10/15 & 10/16 & 10/17
World premiere: 27 August, 2011, Montréal Film Festival
Chronicle of My Mother is consciously meant to be a tribute to the work of the legendary Japanese filmmakers Ozu Yasujiro is revealed through dialogue that isn't quite so crass as to force the characters to say, "My goodness, doesn't this situation remind you of Tokyo Story?" though the actual line in which that movie is name-dropped is, honestly, not much less forward than that. But it doesn't take writer-director Harada Masato leaning on us like that for even the most barely cine-literate viewer to see where things are going: it is, after all, a film about three generations of a family battling with one another's values in an extremely gentle, nonjudgmental way, with a few scenes particularly focusing on how life was changing in Japan at an alarming rate in the time after World War II: opening in 1959 and closing in 1973, the film could as well be described as a metaphorical retelling of the country's painful emergence into a new maturity in the world throughout the 1960s.
The film is based on Inoue Yasushi's semi-autobiographical novel about Igami Kosaku (Yakusho Kōji), a well-regarded author with a penchant for turning his various family dramas into prose with only the slightest veneer of fiction disguising it. This habit greatly annoys his youngest daughter, Kotoko (Miyazaki Aoi), who has reason enough to feel removed from her father, even without his tendency to change her into a narrative object: he simply doesn't seem to express very much interest in her, less even the rest of his largely-female family whom he seems to regard with a good-natured resignation.
Things come to a head after Kosaku's father dies, leaving his mother Yae (Kiki Kirin) on the verge of senility with nobody to protect her. Her only son harbors some heavy measure of resentment towards her for leaving him behind when she and the rest of the family emigrated to Taiwan during the war, and dumps her with his sister; as the years go by, her increasing mental fogginess causes greater and greater problems for the family, though this very same strain teaches Kosaku to embrace the warmth and familial love that has never been part of his make-up; by the end of the movie, the entire Igami family has grown to a point of deep understanding and affection, the whole process relayed to us by Kotoko, whose narration bespeaks a peacefully nostalgic distance from these events, and a keen eye for observation that is only partially compromised by her glowing feelings for these people and days.
Chronicle of My Mother is Ozu-like without being precisely the same as Ozu; I cannot imagine him allowing an ending that puts such a bow on all of the characters' journeys, and the theme of "things all turn out well as long as we're all nice to one another" is a damn sight more sentimental than anything Ozu would have been likely to indulge in, though Chronicle of My Mother is not, itself, an overly sentimental movie, until the very end. And by that point, it has earned it, through a collection of simply terrific performances that make us understand and sympathise with the characters, without cutting them an undue amount of slack.
Ozu-like, too, is Harada's eminently restrained aesthetic, though his film is far less geometrically precise. It's a very clean and classical movie, with generally slowed-down pace and a reliance on quiet, still shots that permit us to observe the characters working through their thoughts. And since this is a story in which what people think and how they act are frequently disconnected from each other, a good chance to sit with the characters, noticing the flux of emotions that pass over their faces, is key to understanding what's going on: these are people who do not tell and only rarely show.
The film is simple and subtle, and faultlessly dedicated to being first and foremost an explication of how families work. It is not tremendously innovative in this regard: though the acting is right on form across the board, the characters are not particularly original figures, Kotoko especially (and, in fact, one could easily strip out everything that's not directly about the difficulties in caring for a senile parent without costing Chronicle of My Mother any of its emotional resonance). Ultimately, it is a film that reinforces what we already know about family rather than shedding any new insights; and yet, it reinforces with great humanity and tight, classical storytelling. Conservative though its heart may be, it is nonetheless damn effective.