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Kabei (2008)

This past week finally gave into my Netflix suggestion and watched the film Kabei (2008) directed by, Yamada Yoji. Yamada is very well-known for the extremely long running and warmly regarded Tora-san or Otoko wa tsurai yo series which debuted in the 1960’s and ended in the mid 1990’s after 48 entries upon the death of main actor, Atsumi Kiyoshi.

This film chronicles the life of one family throughout Japan’s war with China and the United States. Through the eyes (and narration) of the family’s youngest daughter the events of her father’s incarceration for thought crimes and mother’s hard work to keep the family together are laid out in a slow and deliberate manner. Even with a standard running time of two hours each scene paints a detailed portrait of the family’s struggle.

While the story, narrative structure, costuming, and cinematography all strengthen the film, the actors who fill the space and give life to the story fall a bit short. The film required a delicate balance of sadness and repressed emotions. The script seemed to call for characters to reach the brink of sanity before pulling back and keeping their emotions tucked away. This is a challenging task, but not impossible. The interactions between Kabei, her children and Toru (Asano Tadanobu) are generally engaging and it is easy to be swept up by the narrative beats of the film.

Unfortunately, because Yamada covers so much ground through the narrative of the film specific moments, such as characters death, are given short shrift. In these scenes the actors seem to fail at imparting the proper emotion or thrust of the scene. In addition, the editing of these crucial scenes comes off almost comical through the speed of a cut or the length of time a shot remains focused on an object or person. This is a matter of personal taste, but it quickly threw this viewer out of a film depicting a relatively unique wartime experience.

I am a fan of a lot of Yamada’s work, but in key areas this film fell short and it is a shame. However, with the recent announcement that his next feature, Tokyo Kazoku, will play off similar themes to Ozu’s, Tokyo Monogatari and even incorporate the recent events of the Tohoku earthquake into the narrative, I will be very interested to see what lays ahead.

Until next time, Cheers!

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