Okasan opens to the voice of a reflective young woman named Toshiko (Kyôko Kagawa) who amusedly comments on her assiduous and determined mother Masako’s (Kinuyo Tanaka) idiosyncratic preference for short brooms as she observes her mother meticulously sweeping the floors of their modest family home. In a poor, working class Tokyo suburb in 1950, the proud and uncomplaining Fukuharas persevere in the hopes of making a better life for their children (and extended family) and their future. Every morning, after finishing the housework, Masako wheels an awkward, portable cart down the street to sell candy at a sidewalk makeshift concession stand. Her husband, the gentle and hardworking Ryosuke (Masao Mishima), has found temporary employment as a security guard at a factory, patiently waiting for the government reappropriation laws to be enacted so that the family may reclaim their property seized during the war and reopen their laundry and clothes dyeing shop. Overworked and plagued with ill health, Ryosuke has enlisted the aid of an affable and trustworthy family friend returning from a Soviet internment camp named Kimura (Daisuke Katô), whom the children affectionately call Mr. POW, to help him run the business. The Fukuharas’ grown son, Susumu (Akihiko Katayama), has been sent to a sanitarium after developing a recurrent ailment from working at an upholstery shop. Their youngest child, Chako (Keiko Enonami), is reluctantly adjusting to life with the shared attention of her parents after the Fukuharas take in her cousin, Tetsuo, whose widowed mother, Masako’s sister Noriko (Chieko Nakakita), has been repatriated from Manchuria and is preoccupied with examinations for her vocational training, and is unable to provide for her young son. However, despite the family’s diligence and tenacity in rebuilding their lives in the wake of a devastating national turmoil, the Fukuwaras inevitably encounter greater disappointment, hopelessness, and personal tragedy.
Mikio Naruse presents a compassionate, resigned, and poignant examination of human struggle, perseverance, and sacrifice in Okasan. Juxtaposing the innocence and optimism of youth with the austerity of life in postwar Japan, Naruse reflects the gradual erosion of hope in the face of change and uncertainty: the town festivals that coincide with episodes of illness and death in the family; the Fukuharas’ fond reminiscence of their hectic life as young parents with a newly opened business, as Ryosuke looks forward to the laundry shop reopening despite his debilitating illness; Chako’s picnic at an amusement park that exacerbates Masako’s motion sickness. From the opening shot of Toshiko’s affectionate voice-over against the image of the resourceful Masako, arched forward, cleaning the house, Naruse conveys the understated and bittersweet image of his archetypal, resilient heroine – an unsentimental, yet graceful and reverent portrait of a tenacious, aging woman struggling – and literally yielding – against the interminable burden of poverty, heartache, disillusionment, and unrealized dreams.
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