A career milestone of nonetheless minor artistic significance, 86-year-old Kon Ichikawa’s 75th film is a sentimental comedy-drama that should please his older admirers — and those nostalgic for the unhurried, morally upright tenor of classic Nippon screen exports. Others are likely to be underwhelmed by “Big Mama,” whose mild humor barely ripples the placid surface of a mother-knows-best tale that might have served as well for Ethel Barrymore or Irene Dunne half a century ago. Respectable but bland item will be a fest-circuit staple this season, as well as a logical touchstone for Ichikawa retros; offshore commercial prospects are tepid.
Keiko Kishi, whose own formidable career in postwar Japanese cinema includes leads in some of Ichikawa’s best work (“Her Brother,” “Koto,” the 1983 “Makioka Sisters”), is handed a rather too adoring showcase as Okatsu, a widow raising five children — several well into adulthood, but still thoroughly mama-dependent — in mid-18th century Edo. Her frugality attracts unflattering comment even amid tenement conditions and national tough times caused by famine. What Okatsu tells no one is that her apparent miserliness is in fact charitable self-deprivation, with pennies pinched so that a friend of the family can start his own business once he’s released from prison. (The crime: Stealing food for his starving baby.)
Infinitely wise, nurturing, unflappable and ever-ready with a humbling homily, the widow doesn’t blink when she finds herself facing a robber late one night. The thief, natch, is another hard-luck case. She takes him on as an additional “son,” one duly accepted as brother by her biological ones — and who sparks an eldest daughter’s shy romantic interest.
Intrigue is very modest if deftly paced, with minicrises all easily waylaid by mama’s serene guile. When necessary, she’ll resort to a white lie or two — but not without blushing, and always for someone else’s benefit. “A person who’s perfect like Buddha is scary,” her awed new “child” exhales. Sorta dull, too.
Sugary tale has its share of humor, which director handles with some drollery (though all perfs beyond Kishi’s twinklesome central turn are pretty broad). It sports a handsome if rather mothballed look, with color-shot images bled to near-sepia monochrome in the lab; synthy score is sole tacky element.
Though smoothly done, “Big Mama” never provides any compelling reason why its formula seriocomedy occupies the bigscreen rather than the small — or better yet, a legit stage matinee.