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Naruse's sunniest picture embraces both the pain and the joy of living.
MOTHER is the first film directed by Naruse I ever watch. I'm not alone. Of the great Japanese masters, Mikio Naruse (1905-1969) remains the one who received the least exposure outside his native country. Naruse was reticent, shy and prolific. But only two of his films were ever available in the US (vhs versions of A Woman Ascends the Stairs and Late Chrysanthemums released over 20 years ago). Like Mizoguchi's, Naruse's films provide a milieu viewed through the eyes of women, but his protagonists consider suffering and hardship a normal aspect of living, thus becoming less tragic than Mizoguchi's wronged heroines. Naruse specialized in the genre called "shomin geki" or family dramas depicting the living conditions of the lower-class, as opposed to Ozu's solidly middle-class family units.
MOTHER's central protagonist is a wife and mother of four during the tough post-war years. She's played by the wonderful Kinuyo Tanaka (the potter's wife in Ugetsu and, years later, Japan's first woman director) but the narrator and audience surrogate is her observant and cheerful teenage daughter. Despite the presence of illness and death in the plot, it's not surprising that Naruse called MOTHER his "happiest" film. Besides the presence of the youthful and optimistic narrator, there are several instances of humor and amusing vignettes seamlessly incorporated into the narrative. As for the effect the film had one me, perhaps Akira Kurosawa described it most accurately as "a flow of shots that looks calm and ordinary at first glance, reveals itself to be like a deep river with a quiet surface disguising a fast-raging current underneath".
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