I recently rewatched “Psycho,” Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller about a mother-son bond that results in the son’s psychological obliteration, with his long-dead mother’s personality replacing his own.

That sort of merger, minus the Hitchcockian horror, is also the theme of Tatsushi Ohmori’s ”Mother,” whose single mom, Akiko (Masami Nagasawa), neglects and abuses her son, Shuhei, but has an unbreakable hold on him.

Based on an actual incident that occurred in 2014, the film focuses on the history of Akiko and Shuhei’s bond — that is, the part “Psycho” leaves out.

Mother (Mazā)
Run Time 126 min.
Language Japanese
Opens July 3

This is familiar territory for Ohmori, who has examined people on society’s margins — both victims and victimizers — in such films as “The Whispering of the Gods” (2005) and “The Ravine of Goodbye” (2013), with an unflinching but understanding eye. Drained of sentimentality and as harsh as any true crime documentary, this approach can be hard to take. And yet “Mother,” which Ohmori cowrote, achieves a hard-earned clarity of the sort found at the end of a long, terrible struggle. Whatever you may think of his title character, his film has the ring of emotional truth.

Akiko is played by Masami Nagasawa, who in a career of two decades has proven to be a screen-commanding presence, if one that substitutes charisma for serious acting in her more commercial efforts. In “Mother,” however, she is serious indeed, drilling into her character’s molten core.

When we first meet her, Shuhei (Sho Gunji) is a wispy-looking boy and Akiko is yelling at her own mother (Hana Kino) and hardworking sister (Kaho Tsuchimura) for not lending her money, which they know she’ll promptly spend on pachinko. By this point, Akiko is a reviled outcast who has exhausted her family’s sympathy.

Unrepentant, she plunges into an affair with a club host, Ryo (Sadao Abe), who more than equals her in the wild-and-impulsive department, while Shuhei fends for himself for days at a time. The couple tries to extort money from a pudgy city hall employee (Sarutoki Minagawa) ostensibly charged with Shuhei’s welfare, but something goes wrong and they are forced to flee. Then, in the course of their shambling, grifting existence, Akiko becomes pregnant.

Five years later, Shuhei (Daiken Okudaira) is 16 and has a younger sister, Fuyuka (Halo Asada). Akiko is as improvident and volcanic as ever. A well-meaning child welfare worker, Aya (the singled-named Kaho), tries to restart Shuhei’s long-abandoned education, but Ryo reappears — and the old chaos resumes.

Shuhei obviously needs to escape his mother for his own survival, but time and time again, he says and shows that he won’t — or can’t. Also, Akiko will never allow it, and Aya, whether from a lack of legal authority or personal will, does not force it.

“Mother,” however, is not a social problem film about parental abuse but rather a drama that illuminates a relationship that is toxic from the womb and enigmatic to outsiders. “He’s a part of me,” Akiko says, meaning she will never give him his independence. “I like my mother,” Shuei explains, meaning that he will never abandon her.

“Mother” is a chilling glimpse into the abyss, as was “Psycho,” but the quiet, passive Shuhei is not as striking a character as Norman Bates. Imagine if the latter’s dear, departed terror of a mom were still alive and kicking. Norman, not to mention the audience, wouldn’t stand a chance.

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