Familial duty and responsibility to one’s parents makes Chronicle of My Mother a film that will resonate with Asian audiences far more than for the rest of us. And yes, the title is going to make most people think they’re about to see a Japanese version of Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother, but the two films have little in common other than the titular parental unit. In Harada Masato’s (Inugami) lyrical and poetic meditation on family, memory and maternal devotion, Kiki Kirin (Izu, Ghost and about a million other films) turns in a sympathetic performance, despite the material she’s working from, and keeps the histrionics to a minimum. Complex mother-son relationships are second only to mother-daughter relationships for failure to get right on screen. Filmmakers tend to want to go big because no matter what the main character’s issues are, it’s always mum’s fault.
Based on the autobiographical novel by Inoue Yasushi, Chronicle of My Mother is shamelessly sentimental, weepy and innately dramatic. It begins in the 1950s when writer Kosaku Igami (Yakusho Koji, Cure, 13 Assassins) and his sister Kuwako (Minami Kaho) come together to prepare for their dying father’s burial. Kosaku is an iron-fisted husband and father to Mitsu and four varyingly wilful daughters, chief among them Kotoko (Miyazaki Aoi, Nana), that help him print and ship his books whether they want to or not. When his father finally passes away, he goes back to his small hometown to deal with his mother, Yae, now diagnosed with dementia. Kosaku’s turbulent and touchy relationship with his mother takes centre stage for the rest of the film, as they both recall his youth from radically different points of view. He’s convinced she abandoned him during the Second World War; she sees it differently. That moment has informed his art for his entire life, and it has haunted Yae for hers.
This is deliberately paced, muted stuff that takes its sweet time finding peace and closure for Kosaku, and falling asleep and waking up several times will not be uncommon. Nothing happens. Yae wanders around town in her fits of delirium, Kosaku and the girls look for her, and a nugget of family history asserts itself on the present. The dual, opposing tracks that Harada puts Kosaku and Yae on do have a point: the more she loses of herself, the more he gains; the farther she slips from the (eventually) scattered family the closer together they come. But those two tracks and, effectively, two points of view never give the film a single focus. Considering the autobiographical source material Chronicle of My Mother is oddly impersonal. More like Chronicle of Anyone’s Mother. Despite Kiki’s efforts, there is no real sense of Yae in the film. Harada keeps all the characters at arm’s length and Kotoko narrating the film does little to bridge that gap. A strong Ozu Yasujiro influence lingers over the film, particularly when Kosaku finally finds his version of peace, but none of Ozu’s focused insight comes with it.
As if that weren’t enough, Chronicle is dead serious. Levity is completely verboten. Spanning 15 years (and feeling every minute of it) the film sets into a steady rhythm early on and never diverges from. Again, it creates emotional distance that maybe shouldn’t be there. Earth-shattering revelations come and go with the same impact as Mitsu writing a grocery list. All of this conspires to keep Yae a cipher from start to finish and Harada good as his word: this is a “chronicle” and not a “portrait.”
Nonetheless, Kiki and Yakusho are both so compelling, despite the flaws in Harada’s script, that it’s hard not to become engaged with their characters on some level. Yakusho is suitably repressed, hinting at a simmering softie just waiting to emerge and Kiki never lets Yae tip into the abyss of movie disease. Her flights into past fancy are organic and wholly believable. Fortunately, we all (the majority of us) have a mother and that universality combined with the lead performance go a long way to connecting with the film by default. We are compelled to fill in gaps and close those distances ourselves. It’s either a brilliant filmmaking ploy or a stroke of luck.
In typical fashion the film is flawlessly produced, with gorgeous, soft focus visuals by Ashizawa Akiko and impeccable mid-century production design from Yamazaki Hidemitsu. It all makes for a decidedly schizophrenic viewing experience. On one hand is the meandering, somnolent paean to mothers everywhere, on the other is a yawner of a story about people we never get to know. Chronicle of My Mother is arguably Harada’s most accessible film, but it’s a long way from Almodóvar.