Mother (2020) review

Introduction

While Tatsushi Ohmori is not a name the big audiences will know, those with an interest in Japanese cinema will surely know him from his impressive debut The Whispering of the Gods (2005) and his award-winning narratives A Crowd of Three (2010) and The Ravine of Goodbye (2013). His latest narrative, a narrative exploring, in a fictional way, an incident that occurred in 2014.

Available on Netflix.

Review

One day, after losing her job, single mother Akiko (Masami Nagasawa) visits her parental home with her son Shuhei (Sho Gunji) with only one purpose: to ask her mother (Hana Kino) to lend her some money. Hearing this request, Akiko’s younger sister, Kaede (Kaho Tsuchimura) gets angry as her sister has never paid back a singly penny from the 200.000 Yen she lend to her. Akiko’s mother, for that matter, makes clear that she will never give another penny to her.

Not long thereafter, Akiko meets Ryo (Sadao Abe) in an arcade. They spend the night together – they drink and make love. The very next day, Akiko decides to go with him to Nagoya and gives her son to Tamori Ujita (Sarutoki Minagawa) to take care of.

Mother (2020) by Tatsushi Ohmori

While Mother offers a look into poverty and a subtle exploration of the governmental programs aiming to support (with mixed results) those who fell, due to certain circumstances, in poverty, the true focus of the narrative is not poverty as such, but the relational dynamics that Akiko installs in respect to her son and with respect to men.  

While one could argue that Akiko assumes a position of victim when she visits her family to ask for money, such reading would efface the fact her subjective logic is molded by the familial situation she was brought up in. Her angry outburst at the family table reveals that her subjective position, due to her conflictual relation with her mother, is fundamentally structured around not-being-good-enough – or in other words, around being a failure. In more psychoanalytic terms, Akiko feels castrated in the reflective eye of the familial other/(M)Other.  

The way she interacts with Ryo (as well as other men) is – and this is fundamental – function of this not-being-good-enough that structures Akiko’s subjective position. What she demands in these ‘romantic encounters’ is a kind of love that communicates that she is good enough – like any good hysteric, she is in search for a man for whom she is good enough. Every demand is an attempt to obtain from the male subject a pacifying answer to her ‘castration’, a pacifying answer to the impossible to satisfy question ‘Can you lose me? Do you love me?’. It is, in fact, this insatiable desire that dooms her to become the dupe of men – Ryo and others – and fall victim to either their (phallic) enjoyment or their phallic structured abuse (Narra-note 1, Psycho-note 1). 

Mother (2020) by Tatsushi Ohmori

Akiko’s relation with Shuhei is also structured around Akiko’s subjective ‘traumatic’ mark. The two problematic elements that mark their relationship are function of Akiko’s desire for love and being-good-enough. The first problematic aspect in Akiko’s and Shuhei’s relation concerns the fact that Akiko utilizes her son Shuhei as a servant (e.g. sending him to buy cup-noodles for her and her male partner, send her money, lying for her, playing along with her (and her lover’s) schemes, … etc.) in support of her romantic endeavours but also to satisfy her need for love.

The second problematic element in their relation is that Akiko does not hesitate to abandon her son to give her romantic endeavours a chance. When Akiko has established a romantic relation, the subtle forms of physical and emotional neglect underline that the indulgence in passion and obtaining signs of his love takes precedence over her relationship with her son. But the verbal abuse/manipulation also reveals that Akiko wants to keep Shuhei under her thumb to satisfy, whenever she needs, her desire for love.     

Shuhei, to satisfy his mother’s need for love as well as to ensure himself of her love, fulfills all her demands – he does what he is told to do out of love and for love (Psycho-note 2). It is, as a matter of fact, due to his own need for her love that he also fulfills the demands of his mother’s lover, Ryo. In other words, Shuhei, who does not consider Ryo as father, only accepts this exploitable position to show his love to his mother as well as to secure her love – and Akiko, for that matter, allows Ryo to utilize her son in this exploitative way to safeguard his love.

Mother (2020) by Tatsushi Ohmori

The fundamental questions that Mother poses in its exploration of Akiko’s subjective position and her relationship with her son and men are threefold. Firstly, what will the impact be of the insatiable desire of the mother for love and for being good enough? Secondly, can Shuhei escape the dynamic that structures his relationship with his mother? And lastly at what subjective/social cost will his escape or his failure to escape be?   

The composition of Mother – a mix of static moments and measured dynamic moments, quite often within the same shot – is structured in such a way that the human relational drama can come to the fore in a highly sensible manner (Cine-note 1). It is, in fact, Ohmori’s cinematographical restraint (e.g. his reliance on static moments, his refusal to use musical accompaniment and cinematographical decorations to (visually/artificially) strengthen the drama) that forces the drama to be born from the performances as such.

The reason why Mother is such a thrilling and moving drama is thus due to various fabulous performances, i.e. the beautifully layered performance of Masami Nagasawa, Sadao Abe’s crude powerful performance, and Hana Kino’s emotional performance. It is, as a matter of fact, due to these wonderful performances that Mother succeeds in gripping the spectator’s attention from start to finish.

Mother (2020) by Tatsushi Ohmori

Tatsushi Ohmori‘s Mother is a wonderful exploration of how a subjective drama – i.e. the subjective drama of not-being-good-enough – is able to structure all future relationships or, in other words, is able to dictate the relational dynamics. In a languid but highly transparent way, Ohmori confronts the spectator with the subjective and interpersonal ravage the insatiable desire for love and the need for a proof of the other’s love eventually causes. But what turns into Mother into a harrowing and haunting experience is not the way in which the narrative explores its themes as such, but how Masami Nagasawa, Sadao Abe, Hana Kino, …etc. breath realism into the unfolding of this tragedy of love.

Notes

Narra-note 1: We should not forget to underline that Akiko utilizes her body in a more instrumental/manipulative way as well. This instrumental usage of her body, a usage to gain something from the male other (e.g. a place to stay, money, …) without loving him, nevertheless satisfies her desire to be loved and to be good enough. The response of the male other to her demands is always unconsciously taken as an answer on the question: Am I good enough (for you)?

Psycho-note 1: Each romantic failure or separation is, in fact, a repetition of the initial ‘trauma’ or, in better words, a cooperation of not-being-good-enough.    

Psycho-note 2: It should also be mentioned that the demands of the mother towards Shuhei are demands for love as well. Each demand to her son is a demand for proof of his love.

In this respect, it would not be strange to say that the subjective state of being-not-good-enough lies at the basis of all Akiko’s behaviour – be it towards her son or towards her male romantic interests. The goal of every demand and every act is to obtain proof of the other/Other’s love. But as such proof can only satisfy the subject temporary, the demands for love never end.    

Cine-note 1: Ohmori also utilizes subtle shaky ‘static’ moments and dynamic moments in his composition. These ‘shaky’ moments, due to their resemblance to documentary filming, have no other function than to heighten the ‘realism’ of this fictionalized account of the real-life incident. In some rare cases, the use of shaky shots, as a side-effect, strengthens the evoking of tension.

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