‘Waga Haha no Ki (Chronicle of My Mother)’

Revisiting childhood traumas whose echoes last a lifetime


Masato Harada, who once directed Hollywood-style entertainments such as 1989’s sci-fi actioner “Ganheddo (Gunhed)” and the America-set 1993 road movie “Painted Desert,” has since made a specialty of dramas about Japanese men at work. Based on true events and packed with incident, they made life in a large Japanese organization look rather swashbuckling and macho. Examples include “Jubaku: Spellbound” (1999), whose subject was big-league corporate corruption, “The Choice of Hercules” (2002), in which hordes of police faced off against a small band of radicals, and “The Climbers High” (2008), a thriller about a provincial newspaper’s pursuit of a big disaster story.

So I was somewhat surprised to hear that Harada had directed “Waga Haha no Ki (Chronicle of My Mother),” a family drama based on novelist Yasushi Inoue’s 1977 memoir of his troubled relationship with his mom. But the film, despite Harada’s shout outs to the work of ho ̄mu dorama (“home drama”) master Yasujiro Ozu, carries the DNA of his earlier films, including their celebrations of the traditional male ethos.

His novelist hero, Kosaku Igami (Koji Yakusho), has ascended to the peaks of best-sellerdom when we first see him in 1959, visiting his dying father (Rentaro Mikuni) at his upper-middle-class home in Yugashima, Shizuoka Prefecture. Igami boasts about his sales figures, but his father grasps his hand — a final gesture of love that Igami accepts (though we also sense other, more turbulent emotional currents).

That sort of bond is lacking between Igami and his mother, Yae (Kirin Kiki), who for reasons he could never understand had him raised by his great-grandfather’s mistress from ages 5 to 13, while his two younger sisters went with her to live in Taiwan. This ancient injustice rankles still, even when it becomes obvious that Yae is declining into senility. How can he forgive, as she forgets?

That, in a nutshell, is the story, but Harada’s script weaves from this simple design a busy domestic tapestry that unfolds over the course of more than a decade. Many scenes are of bustling family gatherings at which Igami’s sisters, Shigako (Midoriko Kimura) and Kuwako (Kaho Minami), and his three daughters, Ikuko (Mimura), Noriko (Akiko Kikuchi) and Kotoko (Aoi Miyazaki), fret and fume over Yae or, as her memory worsens and her hold on reality loosens, jolly her as they would a child.

Meanwhile, Igami lords it over them and his quietly supportive wife (Mariko Akama) in gruff, if kindly, patriarchal fashion, as the manager of a literary factory that supports a large, thriving household. Not everyone bends the knee, however, particularly the rebellious Kotoko, a budding photographer who not only resists Igami’s bullying but takes a watchful, critical interest in his unfinished business with Yae.

As a document of how a postwar literary lion lived, surrounded by a lively crowd of dependents and servants, “Chronicle” is illuminating, as well as unapologetically nostalgic for old-fashioned masculine authority. Its central story, however, is often drowned out by the background noise as well as blurred by the dual focus on Igami and Kotoko.

As mother and son, Kiki and Yakusho rise above of the din with a minimum of histrionics and a maximum of seasoned professional craft. But their big scenes lack lasting impact. Despite the many references to Igami’s childhood trauma and its present-day reverberations, the film is sketchy about the actual origins of that trauma, going back again and again to one scene that seems to express Yae’s cool, silent indifference to her son. In other words, repetition does not lead to a deeper understanding.

Finally, the true end point of dementia — total disintegration of personality — is glossed over. Instead, the film delivers a big, upbeat, unconvincing climax intended to release floodgates of audience tears.

One contrast is Hirokazu Koreeda’s 2008 “Aruitemo Ariutemo (Still Walking),” another family drama about parents and children living uneasily with old wounds, also starring Kiki as a less-than-perfect mother. Instead of pumping tear ducts, however, Koreeda used an accretion of real-life details to build to a more persuasive, less sentimental conclusion. The message: Some dramas never end until all the actors leave the stage for good.