“My Little Sweet Pea” a sentimental take on the “mother” film

The haha-mono (母もの) is a sub-genre of the gendai-geki (現代劇) contemporary film genre that has been popular with Japanese audiences since before the postwar era. Almost every well-respected auteur in Japan has contributed a film to the genre. Literally translated to mean “mother story,” the haha-mono’s central trope revolves around the ever-suffering mother figure who must sacrifice her own health and happiness for the sake of her family’s well being.

For Western audiences, the haha-mono is an acquired cinematic taste. Of course, there are cinephiles who will wax rhapsodic about the Zen qualities of Yasujiro Ozu’s family dramas, Mikio Naruse’s resilient female characters, Kenji Mizoguchi’s suffering women, or nostalgia trips caused by a Yoji Yamada or Keisuke Kinoshita picture, but for the most part Western film fans, especially English-speaking ones, have a strong aversion to “weepy” pictures.

However, in “My Little Sweet Pea” (麦子さんと, 2013), director Keisuke Yoshida eschews melodrama for a heavy helping of sentimentality.  While the majority of haha-mono films tend to focus on the mother figure and all her trials and tribulations, Yoshida follows a more investigative plot structure. Following a first act that introduces Mugiko (Maki Horikita), her brother Norio (Ryuhei Matsuda), and their long lost mother Ayako coming back as the matriarch after being away for so many years, the film switches gears in the second act with the sudden death of Ayako and Mugiko’s quest to bury the remains in her mother’s hometown. Along the way Mugiko learns more about the mother she never knew, and also confronts a lot of the animosity she feels toward her.

As you can tell from the film’s plot description, no new narrative ground is covered, but what distinguishes “My Little Sweet Pea” within the haha-mono genre is its “Citizen Kane-esque narrative structure, through which we learn more about Ayako from various third parties that knew her before Mugiko’s birth. What Mugiko discovers is not a selfish callow woman but someone who, just like her, had her own dreams and fought to keep them alive until reality finally beat her down into submission.

What makes the viewer empathize with Mugiko – and not hate her for acting like a petulant child – is the performance of Horikita, who faces double duties playing the part of Mugiko as well as Ayako’s younger self. Horikita has the difficult task of not just trying to differentiate the characters but also, through a series of mostly silent flashbacks, conveying to the audience a whole host of conflicting emotions felt by Ayako as she was adored by her hometown but at the same time desiring to conquer a far bigger pond. Mugiko and Ayako are connected not merely through blood, but the fact that both women dreamed of a life outside the confines of their own small world.  Although Ayako may have failed to realize her own potential, her death might give her daughter the opportunity to realize hers; just as in all classic haha-mono films, even in death a mother’s work is never finished.

Aside from the relationship between mother and daughter, “My Little Sweet Pea” tackles a very prescient issue in Japanese society since the days of Ozu: the dissolution of age-old traditions in the face of modernity. The flashbacks with Ayako not only show us a vibrant young woman ready to tackle the world but also a typical town with a multi-generational population enjoying the comforts of Japan’s economic prosperity. By the time Mugiko arrives though, Ayako’s hometown is a mere shell of its former self. The young and able-bodied have mostly left for big cities like Tokyo and the nostalgia of small town life that was present during the film’s flashbacks evaporates as the town is abandoned, left to be maintained by an aging population who have only their memories of a happier time to keep them company.

Treading a well-worn genre path, “My Little Sweet Pea” offers a familiar story about the relationship between parent and child that anyone, be they Japanese or otherwise, can relate to. As Japan faces even greater challenges as it recovers from the tragedies of 3/11 – and an economy and population that have been spiraling downwards for several decades – Yoshida’s picture is a document of the previous generation’s last gasp before the new wave comes and takes over.  Here’s hoping history’s mistakes won’t be repeated.

“My Little Sweet Pea” screens at JAPAN CUTS: The New York Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema on Sat., July 19, at 2:15 p.m., at the Japan Society.  For ticket information, go to japansociety.org.