April 11, 2019
A Mother Should Be Loved – Japan, 1934
I am feeling a bit torn at the moment. While I know what I want to say about Yasujiro Ozu’s 1934 drama A Woman Should Be Loved, I am not as certain just how much I should express. This is, of course, a question that many reviewers grapple with, especially in this age of spoiler alerts and frustration when pivotal plot details are revealed, even from movies for which expectations of secrecy seem rather unreasonable. After all, if you haven’t seen a movie within a few years of its theatrical release, I think you lose the right to demand complete discretion on the part of people writing or talking about it.
However, what do you do with a film like A Mother Should Be Loved? This is a film that has yet to appear on DVD or Blu-ray in the United States. To view it, one must order it from a UK-based website, as well as have a region-free DVD player. And then there’s the Criterion factor. Since the company has put out so many of Ozu’s other films, potential viewers may be waiting for their eventual release of this one, thus making the BFI release something they feel quite safe passing on.
So, here are a few things that people with this mindset should be aware of. First, the bad news. A Mother Should Be Loved is an incomplete film – the first and last reels have been lost, meaning that the film no longer contains a significant part of its set-up and its entire finale – and rarely do films in this state get a formal stand-alone release. On the other hand, what remains of the film has been remarkably well preserved, so much so that it is hard to imagine what even a company like Criterion could add to it, barring the miraculous discovery of the entire film in an abandoned attic somewhere in Japan.
Yet there is another consideration. A Mother Should Be Loved is one of Ozu’s most Japanese films. In describing it this way, I do not mean to imply anything negative about its quality or the performances of its cast. It has all to do with its central conflict, and here is where the spoiler alert conundrum comes in – As Shakespeare might have put it: To reveal or not to reveal? So, read the rest at your own discretion.
A Mother Should Be Loved is about a family that loses its patriarch, a topic Ozu addressed in greater detail in his 1941 film, Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family. Here, the family consists of just four people, and sadly the father dies never having fulfilled a simple promise, that of taking his sons to the beach. I suspect that an American film with this set-up with end with the mother and the two sons looking out at the glorious waters of the blue sea, an act that would symbolize coming full circle. Ozu was never one for such sentiment. The father’s death is never even explained, although from everything we learn throughout the film, it was likely the result of either overwork or cancer, a possibility that casts a pall over later scenes of his sons, now older, honoring their father by taking up his habit of smoking a pipe. Nor is it ever explained how his widow, Chieko (Mitsuko Yoshikawa), makes enough money to send both of her sons to university.
The central conflict of the film arises when Sadao (played as an adult by Den Obinata and as a child by Seiichi Kato), the oldest of the two sons, applies for university and gets his first look at his birth certificate. Spoiler alert: He is not his mother’s son. In an early scene, Chieko is urged by a family friend (Ozu regular Chishu Ryu) to continue raising Sadao as if he were her son, and it is suggested that the deception is necessary for Chieko to be able to raise him as her own flesh and blood And here is where I think the film becomes somewhat inaccessible for Western audiences. Thousands of parents take on this sort of responsibility every year, and they do so without the need for subterfuge. In addition, just as many children learn every year that they have been adopted or that one of their parents had been previously married to someone else. Children eventually just accept these things and move on. Even in the more conservative days of the 1930s, it was hardly taboo for a widower to remarry and for his second wife to assume the maternal role for any children he’d had with his previous wife. So when Sadao starts acting cruel to his stepmother and then throws himself on the floor and sobs uncontrollably, non-Japanese audiences may be forgiven for giving a collective shrug and thinking, “What’s this all about?” and “What an ungrateful boy!”
Now, it’s telling that Chieko never expresses these sentiments. In fact, she does the opposite: she endorses them, implying that they are justified, even years later, yet the film never attempts to explain why. What exactly are the social implications of being raised by your father’s second wife? What bearing, if any, does that have on your friends and potential employers? And why doesn’t the truth make Sadao more grateful and sympathetic to the woman who raised him? I wanted to know. Perhaps the intended audience simply didn’t need to.
The film was made in 1934, a time when nationalistic fervor was rising and the Japanese government was on the verge of going to war in Asia. There is no reference to this, yet curiously the film includes one reference to Western influence. In the room of a local prostitute hangs a poster of Joan Crawford’s 1932 film Rain, in which Crawford portrays a prostitute named Sadie Thompson. Sadie is eventually able to escape her old life through marriage with a police sergeant. Perhaps Ozu is suggesting that the prostitute in Ozu’s film has visions of a similar happy ending with Sadao, an example, perhaps, of the West perpetuating unrealistic and culturally unacceptable notions to society at large.
Unfortunately (for Western audiences, at least), the film never moves on from the narrative thread of “stepmother problem,” and that is to the film’s detriment, for what doesn’t resonate early on still doesn’t resonates later. To me, this lessened the impact the film might otherwise have had. I didn’t empathize with the characters as much as I normally do when watching an Ozu film. In fact, I found myself wondering at the injustice of it all. Here was a movie in which a man could move on from grief and find happiness in a second marriage. However, his wife could do neither. She seemed to be required to be in a perpetual state of mourning, never able to move on, never able to find contentment outside of the success of her sons. Her late husband was ever-present, staring down from an altar affixed to the wall, as if he had been all she would ever need for the rest of her life. Again, I wondered why. I know there’s an explanation for it, some rationale that, at the very least, explains the thinking behind such portrayals of women as being capable of eternal loyalty, but it is a concept that Ozu himself moved away from, as evident from the ending of Tokyo Story.
With A Mother Should Be Loved, we get one of Ozu’s most unapproachable films. For some, this will be a challenge and a beautiful one at that. I felt it was an obstacle to any full enjoyment of the film. A Mother Should Be Loved is certainly watchable. It has good performances, and Ozu again puts his mastery of imagery and close-ups on display throughout. However, the film is more likely to be enjoyed as a curiosity, as a blip in the repertoire of a man known for producing far more masterpieces than works of mediocrity. A Woman Should Be Loved, it bring me no pleasure to say, is an example of the latter, much more akin to There Was a Father than Late Spring or Good Morning. It is one of only a small handful of Ozu’s films that I am content to watch only once, and that is a telling statement in and of itself. (on DVD in Region B)
2 and a half stars
*A Mother Should Be Loved is a silent film.