Japanese filmmaker’s latest showcases his fine talents

There is something uniquely heartening about the saga of filmmaker Yoji Yamada, who directed his first picture in 1961 and has made 74 movies since then.

The majority of those titles were in a single series featuring the same character. That series was successful in Japan but little-known in the West.

Yamada was 70 years old when he scored an international hit with 2002’s “The Twilight Samurai,” a gloriously fine film about an aged swordsman. Talk about your overnight success stories.

That movie, and the Yamada films that followed, showed a filmmaker in full command of his tools, the equivalent of a classic-era Hollywood director such as William Wyler.

And Yamada just keeps cranking ‘em out. His latest is “Kabei: Our Mother,” a delicately calibrated drama set during the World War II years. This is a homefront movie from the Japanese perspective, based on a memoir by Teruyo Nogami.

In the opening sequences, the father of a Tokyo family is repeatedly warned to stop making critical statements about Japan’s imperialist regime. Finally arrested and taken to jail, he leaves behind his wife, known as Kabei (Sayuri Yoshinaga), and two very young daughters.

Although we occasionally see the husband in jail, the film really concentrates on how Kabei and the two girls manage to cope. Neighbors and a wacky visiting uncle help fill in the hard times.

Yamada expertly sketches the character of the jailed husband’s young former student (Tadanobu Asano). Introduced to Kabei and the girls as a blundering comic character, he gradually becomes a warm presence and a devoted friend.

This is a sentimental movie, but it’s far too crisply made and clear-eyed to be a soap opera. And Yamada never lets Japan’s war guilt slip off the screen.

This director has the uncanny ability to set up his camera and capture the inner workings of a small home, the way people come and go from rooms, the way the outside neighborhood is invited into the house, the way the father’s absence seems to inform domestic scenes after he is long gone.

At 132 minutes it might be too long, but “Kabei” does nice things on a very small scale. I’m looking forward to Yamada’s next picture, which will be No. 75 in his career. And the 75 after that.

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