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When the patriarch of the Toda family suddenly dies, his widow discovers that he has left her with nothing but debt and married children who are unwilling to support her--except for her most thoughtful son, just returned from China.
The acclaimed Japanese filmmaker, Yasujiro Ozu often dealt with themes of parenthood and conflicts between different generations throughout his entire career. In many occasions he portrayed somewhat idealized father figures in films such as "There Was a Father" (1942), "Tokyo Story" (1953) and "An Autumn Afternoon" (1962), whereas maternity was a topic he seldom addressed. Although it is present in most of Ozu's films, he directly discussed it only in "A Mother Should Be Loved" (1934) and "Late Autumn" (1960). This is intriguing because as an adolescent Ozu mainly lived a fatherless life while, in turn, he lived almost his whole life with his mother. All this may seem pointless trivia, but it can be fruitfully associated with the film at hand since it deals with personal loss, and Ozu's father, in fact, passed away during production.
One essential matter which must be addressed is that "A Mother Should Be Loved" remains in a fragmented state. In other words, it is an incomplete film because the first and last reels of it are still missing. Therefore, my thoughts about the film are based on the British Film Institute DVD release of the film with a running time of approximately 70 minutes.
The film begins with two young brothers studying who are, out of the blue, called home due to their father's sudden death. A dramatic shock which breaks down the calm of everyday life resembles Ozu's earlier film "Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth" (1932) where a schoolboy's game of cunning at an exam is halted by the death of his father. In "A Mother Should Be Loved" this opening tragedy remains as an echo throughout the film, emerging mainly in the conflict between the brothers. Later on, one of the brothers learns that his mother isn't really his mother. In reality he was the child of his late father's first wife, and this realization causes another tragedy which is that of a break-up.
Although "A Mother Should Be Loved" is missing two whole reels, it still stands out as a fascinating film from Ozu's silent era. One can clearly detect Ozu's genius in composition and his unique poetry of space as well as his profound depiction of human disappointment, the fragility of existence and the transience of life. Moreover, what connects the film with Ozu's other work is that it is a known fact that Ozu devoted his whole career studying the disintegration of a family and such is the case in this film, too. The information that the elder brother is actually the son of his father's first wife is what triggers this dissolution.
Consistent with the director's subsequent work isn't, of course, something that would immediately make a film great. In fact, many have criticized "A Mother Should Be Loved", though most of them have also detected its interesting maternal theme and mature characterization. The most well-known western interpreter of Ozu, Donald Richie, for example, has stated that the film is "somewhat spoiled by melodrama." It is easy to identify with this remark but, on the other hand, Japanese film expert Alexander Jacoby has written on the film rather aptly, too: "While it is uncharacteristically melodramatic, 'melodrama' is a descriptive rather than an evaluative term, and Ozu brings an undoubted intensity to the scenes of conflict within the family."
What is more, this melodramatic aspect seems to carry a profoundly personal tone with it as Ozu indeed lost his own father during filming. In this sense, it is interesting that the film focuses on the relationship between a mother and a child, whereas Ozu usually studied father-daughter or father-son relationships. Thus "A Mother Should Be Loved" remains as a fascinating oddity of some sort in Ozu's prewar oeuvre as well as a memoir of a specifically painful and essential phase in his life which probably -- on one level or another -- led him to spend the rest of his days with his mother.
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