Director Kiju Yoshida, whose best works, “Eros + Massacre” and “Coup d’Etat” were made in 1969 and 1973 respectively, comes out of a 14-year retirement with “Women in the Mirror.” The former radical has mellowed in the intervening years, and his new film is a classical piece of work almost in the tradition of the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, whose still, precisely framed images Yoshida emulates here. But, despite some highly intriguing elements, this story of three generations of women still living under the shadow of the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 emerges as a beautiful but sterile exercise which will struggle to find commercial interest in most territories. Programmers for quality television networks should take a look, however.
Yoshida has written a book on Ozu, so it’s not surprising he emulates his style in this film. And for a good hour, this refreshingly retro approach may entrance lovers of classical Japanese cinema to the point that they overlook the film’s plot contrivances and dramatic shortcomings.
The elderly Mrs. Kawase (elegantly stylish Mariko Okada) lives with her granddaughter, Natsuki (Sae Issiki). The old lady’s daughter, Miwa, Natsuki’s mother, has been missing for 24 years; after giving birth, she left the hospital and hasn’t been seen since. But when a middle-aged woman called Masako (Yoshiko Tanaka) is arrested by the police on charges of kidnapping children, whom she later releases unharmed, the medical records of the culprit tally with those of the missing Miwa. And, Masako reveals she is an amnesiac, with no memory of her past.
The first hour or so of the film depicts the awkward reunion between mothers and daughters. In an unfortunate plot contrivance, the living rooms of both Mrs. Kawase’s house and the apartment of Masako are dominated by identically broken mirrors; Miwa had broken the mirror in her parents’ home before she disappeared, and it has never been repaired; she has smashed the mirror in her own home with the cracks forming precisely the same pattern.
The principal clue to Miwa/Masako’s past apparently lies in Hiroshima, where she was born and where Mrs. Kawase’s late husband had worked as a doctor. Coincidentally, a television journalist has been pestering Mrs. Kawase for an interview, because she’s making a documentary about an American who suffered from radiation after the bomb was dropped and whom Dr. Kawase had treated. After the action shifts to the restored city, the threads of the narrative slowly come together.
Pic is soulful and melancholy, a mood accentuated by the atonal music score by Keiko Harada and Mayumi Miyata. The three principal actresses deliver the most convincing performances possible given that the director’s distancing style is not conducive to emotional involvement. Pic’s main star is the sharp-as-a-tack camerawork by Masao Nakabori; it’s one of those films where any individual shot could be extracted and framed as a work of art.