Japanese Title: 麦子さんと
Romaji: Mugiko-san to
Release Date: December 21st, 2013
Running Time: 95 mins.
Director: Keisuke Yoshida
Writer: Keisuke Yoshida, Ryo Nishihara (Screenplay),
Starring: Maki Horikita, Ryuhei Matsuda, Kimiko Yo, Sayaka Tashiro, Amane Okayama, Eri Fuse, Yoichi Nukumizu
Japan has always been good for films about women. It is thematic territory so rich in stories that there are genres such as the haha-mono (mother story). These are films that follow a specific formula where a mother figure endures a hard life and sacrifices herself for her (often ungrateful) family. Her suffering comes into focus in a teary-eyed ending where everybody cries and repents their actions, expressing the desire to change. Specific examples Keisuke Kinoshita’s tragic and bitter Nihon no Higeki (1953) and Yasuhiro Ozu’s The Only Son (1936), two films guaranteed to make an audience shed many tears of sadness. For a lighter one, try The Wolf Children (2012) which is about the struggles of a single mother with two unique kids (you will still shed tears but happy ones). My Little Sweet Pea falls into this genre but is different because it focusses on the children’s realisation of their mother’s sacrifice rather than the parent’s travails.
When the film starts we see Mugiko (Maki Horikita) who has journeyed from Tokyo to a small town encircled by mountains. It’s an alien place for her made all the more strange because the locals seem awestruck by her appearance. It starts at the train station. The attendant in the ticket office swears he recognises her even though she tells him she has never been there before.
Manabu (Yoichi Nukumizu), a taxi driver, is the next to stare at her. He’s a garrulous sort and likes to take a glance at her every so often when he’s driving and talking which results in some near death experiences for some of the residents of the town. Why are they so obsessed with her and why is she there anyway? The film jumps back in time to let us in on the reason for her journey and why everyone wants to know Mugiko…
Mugiko is in town to deliver the ashes of her late mother Ayako (Kimiko Yo), a parent she cannot remember because Ayako seemingly abandoned Mugiko and her older brother Norio (Ryuhei Matsuda) with their father when they were much younger. Since the father’s death the two siblings have lived in an apartment in Tokyo and get along easily, Mugiko half-heartedly pursuing the dream of being a voice actress and the nominally more mature Norio working as an emcee at a pachinko parlour (he’s a bit of a bounder when it comes to money but decent nonetheless). Mugiko gets the chance to meet their mother when a dishevelled looking woman turns up on her doorstep unannounced asking to move in.
The kids are pretty perturbed that she has the gall to do such a thing but let her in nonetheless. It isn’t long before Norio moves out to be with his girlfriend, leaving Mugiko alone with Ayako.
The two live together awkwardly, trying to get to know each other through cooking, television, and work but it is difficult considering the years that have passed. Ayako suffers through a lot of hostile behaviour fuelled by Mugiko’s irritation with this stranger’s habits (a huge alarm clock that wakes her up at unreasonable hours in the morning) and a lot of resentment over her mother’s absence. Mugiko soon holds nothing back, from harsh comments to physical force, and she finds she may regret it because her mother dies, her life taken away by a disease she hid from her children.
Despite putting on a brave face Norio is upset and asks the seemingly indifferent Mugiko to take their mother’s ashes to her home town. This simple task becomes profoundly complex and as Mugiko finds out more about a mother she really knows little about and she discovers more about herself, the anger she carries and what she wants to do with her life.
My Little Sweet Pea is an emotional film but one that keeps itself restrained despite the opportunities for melodrama, much like its main character. I appreciate it all the more for the restraint because the emotions the characters have come across sharply and far more truthfully and the lessons learned by the characters are easier to glean.
Despite a narrative that is dotted with flashbacks to Ayako’s teenage years, the film is a rather simple exploration of who she was as a person and what she meant to others before she became a mother. It is a thread that is easy to pick up and follow. By the end of the film we have found out a lot about her. More importantly, so has Mugiko who can empathise and understand her mother and express the sadness and remorse over her passing, feelings she stifled at the beginning of the film and found hard to translate through her natural resentment.
We get to know Ayako in the same way her daughter does, by meeting the many people in her hometown. The obsession that the people have with Mugiko is that she is the spitting image of her mother and she reminds them of Ayako and this allows them to open up to Mugiko about their memories, the most prominent being how she used to be so cool and reminded people of the singer Seiko Matsuda, the Matsuda song Akai Sweet Pea popping up on the soundtrack a lot.
Through the many second-hand accounts of stories told by Ayako’s former classmates, the fond remembrances of admirers and the admissions of love, Mugiko gets to find out who Ayako was as a person and discovers that she had her own dreams and desires not too dissimilar from her own vague goal of being a seiyuu (voice actress), that Ayako was popular, a good singer and she wanted to make it as a pop-star in Tokyo before life got in the way and she sacrificed her dreams for her family. Over the course of the film, Ayako goes from being an unknown person and a source of anger, into being someone Mugiko can identify with and even respect. That uncanny resemblance between mother and daughter that people see works on another level since Maki Horikita plays both Mugiko and the young Ayako in soft-focus sepia tinted flashback scenes, making it easier for the audience to identify the similarities.
These flashbacks bear great feelings of nostalgia, they are the liveliest and happiest and most innocent part of the film, and are a stark contrast to the more emotionally buttoned up and greyer sections set in Mugiko’s time where the few young people seen on screen keep their emotions in check and cynicism is everywhere.
It isn’t just Ayako’s life that provides Mugiko with this realisation that her mother was a complex character who tried to do her best in life because she meets other mothers (played by veteran actresses Eri Fuse and Yumi Asou) in the town, both dealing with ungreatful or absent children. Seeing their struggles puts things into perspective for Mugiko while also allowing the film to touch lightly on wider issues surrounding the interaction between generations.
The cast is large and everybody plays a small but vital role. You may think that all of these different stories would diffuse the sadness at the heart of the narrative, the loss of a parent, but it creates a rich tapestry of life that brings both melancholy and joy. Seeing the community come together to greet Mugiko and tell her stories really gives the film a sense of liveliness as all sorts of fun and interesting characters with different perspectives make an impact.
The initially stalkerish taxi driver, Manabu Inomoto, is a character who develops from creepy comedy relief to a genuinely nice and charming chap as we see who never really got over his crush over Ayako and treats Mugiko with respect and a little harmless adoration. As much as Mugiko gets catharsis talking to others, they get relief and pleasure talking to her about their feelings.
The greatest performance comes from Maki Horikita who anchors the film by using the appropriate levels of restraint, her emotional journey shows massive complex changes in the character throughout the movie. There are few fireworks in her performance, more underlying resentment and anger visibly haunting her actions over having to deal with her mother and feelings of abandonment then a gradual understanding that gives way to a suitably emotional and tear-filled ending. Most importantly, like in the best haha-mono, Mugiko learn to repent her actions, respect her mother, and make a fresh start taking inspiration from Ayako’s sacrifice, to pursue her own dreams with gusto. Of course the film ends with tears but these are richly deserved ones elicited with skilful acting and a simple story.
This was one of two films I saw at this year’s Japan Touring Film Programme (the other being Bolt from the Blue) and the audience I sat amidst was sniffing and sobbing at the end. I had adopted my oft-used intellectual pose at the emotional heights, cupping my chin with my hand and surreptitiously wiping away tears with my thumb. It’s the type of film that will make you want to call your mother and be nice to her.