Okaasan (Mom) (Japan, 2018) [CAAMFest 2019]

Kana Hatakeyama is a New York based actress/filmmaker who may be familiar from American television shows such as Orange is the New Black (2013-) and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015-2019) but for her debut as a director she travels back to Japan and enlists her mother, Kako Hatekayama, for a simple, heartfelt story of two women reconnecting after the loss of a loved one.

The film starts with the mother, expecting the imminent arrival of her daughter from some far-flung place. It takes 14 hours to travel back to the family home so one can imagine that the daughter lives and works in America while the mother has remained behind in Japan to hold down the fort in their rural hometown. The distance between them is evident in the way they uneasily engage with each other while the daughter finds it hard to readjust to a Japanese environment. Indeed, we get the sense that she is too occupied with her own life but the reason for her return is to celebrate the first day of the new year with hatsumode and a visit to the family shrine. She also wants to pay a visit to the grave of someone very special, her grandmother, who died the previous year. One gets the impression that the grandmother made the family complete and without her, mother and daughter have drifted apart. But the grandmother’s influence is still felt because her cooking, her kimono, her emotions, and the lingering memories help bring mother and daughter together.

This is a brave picture for Kana Hatakeyama to make because it lays bare all sorts of negative emotions and character traits. She portrays a truculent child who shows no appreciation to the mother she has left behind but viewers will understand that bad behaviour is born from a sense of guilt over her absence from her mother. Guilt makes us act out in strange ways and it takes time to work through emotions. What Hatakeyama does particularly well is to show how time, attention, and the bonds of traditions can help ease the journey so as mother and daughter work together to get the grandmother’s kimono wearable and visit the shrine. The underlying emotions are brought out until there is a climax in a one-two punch of powerful scenes at the end which should move audiences and caps a very well shot and immersive short. Camerawork is excellent so we truly enjoy the beautiful Japanese landscape but the most beautiful thing of all is the honesty that mother and daughter show in the bittersweet ending.

Okaasan (Mom) is showing at CAAMFest 2019 on May 10 as part of the ‘It Runs in the Family’ shorts program.