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‘Mugiko-san to (With Mugiko)’

Treat your mother right, because one day goodbye will be farewell

by Mark Schilling

One reason for the lasting popularity of “Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story),” the 1953 Yasujiro Ozu masterpiece about a momentous visit by an elderly couple to their adult children in Tokyo, is that all too many of its viewers can see themselves in the film’s selfish son and daughter who don’t have time for Mom and Dad, rather than the considerate daughter-in-law played by Setsuko Hara. When Chishu Ryu’s kindly father thanks her for all the trouble she has taken, the needles of guilt drive straight into the audience’s collective solar plexus — or is that just me?

It’s not that we neglectful children don’t have our rationales, and sometimes good ones. One of the best belongs to the title heroine of Keisuke Yoshida’s “Mugiko-san to” (“With Mugiko”). An aspiring anime voice actress working in an anime shop in Tokyo, Mugiko (Maki Horikita) was abandoned by her mom, Saiko (Kimiko Yo), early on and has no memory of her — only resentment.

Then, three years after Dad dies, Saiko reappears at the apartment that a now grown-up Mugiko shares with her older brother Norio (Ryuhei Matsuda) and asks to move in, apparently assuming she can take up where she left off so many years ago. Mugiko at first rejects this stranger, as does Norio, but he proves as weather-vane-ish as his mother (whom he remembers better than his younger sister does). But soon after Saiko ensconces herself in the apartment, with Norio’s approval, he makes a quick exit, leaving Mugiko alone with this unwelcome roommate.

Here is where the film departs from the family-drama formula, with its tempestuous quarrels and heartwarming reconciliations. All Mugiko can see is a tired, unreliable middle-aged woman with annoying ticks, such as setting her ancient alarm clock too loud. What the audience sees, however, is a mother trying her fumbling best to make up to her alienated offspring.

Then, early in the story, Saiko dies, and Mugiko makes her first ever trip to her mother’s hometown to deposit her ashes in the family grave. There she learns that the young Saiko was not only her spitting image (starting with an excitable cabby so taken with the resemblance that he nearly drives over a bicycling cop), but the town idol, with dreams of making it big in show business.

Yoshida’s script has the expected arc, as Mugiko learns more about the Saiko the town knew, glowing with youth and ambition, and realizes that she was worthy of love, not the sort of scorn and contempt her own daughter heaped on her.

Even so, the lessons Mugiko learns are more from living example than scolding words (though she does not entirely escape the latter). As she sees her own behavior towards Saiko reflected in others, to her shame and regret, she becomes more accepting of what she once regarded as Saiko’s crimes and misdemeanors. That is, she begins to grow up.

Though known for his realistic dialogue (see his recent “Bashauma-san to Bigmouth (The Workhorse and the Bigmouth)” for an example), Yoshida is working in a more commercial vein in this film, with plot points that click together with the snap and precision of Lego blocks. Think less “Tokyo Story,” more “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Not that “With Mugiko” is destined to become a holiday perennial, but it does have a similar message: When Mom is gone you might miss her more than you thought, while discovering you’re more like her than you imagined. Corny? Probably. True? For a lot of us, yes — Mugiko included, of course.

Horikita was Yoshida’s first choice for the role of Mugiko and it’s easy to see why: Though not a pop-idol type herself, she projects an air of purity shared by many a 1980s idol, starting with Seiko Matsuda, whose 1982 hit “Akai Sweet Pea (Red Sweet Pea)” is the film’s often-repeated theme song. (Saiko likes to hum it under her breath.) Horikita can also handle the role’s more complex demands, from Mugiko’s simmering anger at her mom’s long absence to her talent for imitating the chirpy heroine of a favorite anime. (Horikita has essayed anime voice acting herself.)

Veteran Yo, who often plays salt-of-the-earth types, is also excellent as the down-and-out Saiko. Weary, ill and resigned to her lot, she still retains vestiges of the sweetness that won so many male hearts back home. But it’s only close to the film’s end, long after she has left the scene, that her tragedy hits home.

And it hits hard, though the guilty (this reviewer included) may feel more like calling Mom after the credits roll.

Fun fact: The divorced mom in Yoshida’s 2008 comedy “Junkissa Isobe (Cafe Isobe)” is called Mugiko in the script, though the name is never used in the film. He decided to use it as the name for heroine of his next film.