Dealing with domestic abuse, generations of unresolved mother-daughter issues, and at least one plot twist with blackmail, the NTV television drama Mother is far better than it has any right to be. Television is often considered a slum for dramatic fictional stories, a land in which stories are written and made for the masses via recurring clichés, uninspired directing, and less-than-stellar production values. Exquisitely filmed and subtly touching, Mother consistently shattered these stereotypes during its 11-episode run.
While writer Sakamoto Yuji started his television writing career with urban romance dramas like Tokyo Love Story, he began to explore juvenile-related social issues in his later works Watashitachi no Kyoshitsu and Taiyo to Umi no Kyoshitsu. With Mother, Sakamoto smartly works in familial melodrama within the confines of a typical "on the run" story, rarely letting the story lose its dramatic momentum while also giving it room to expand its characters.
The opening episodes of Mother can be tough to watch: the first episode sets up the meeting between introverted kindergarten teacher Nao (Matsuyuki Yasuko) and her student Reina (Ashida Mana). The two live in a small town in Hokkaido, a perfect fit for the emotionally cold Nao, who has estranged herself from her adopted family in Tokyo. Over time, Nao begins to suspect that Reina is suffering from some kind of domestic abuse at home, which Sakamoto and director Mizuta Nobuo show very delicately without showing the ugly details. While it makes for a disturbing viewing experience, the scenes further legitimize Nao's rationale to kidnap Reina out of the situation by the end of the first episode.
Just as Mother seems to settle down on a typical "on the run" story structure that would follow Nao and Reina's adventures, Sakamoto gets to the true heart of the story in episode three with the introduction of Nao's birth mother Motsuki (Tanaka Yuko). While Nao and Reina's escape from the law continues to drive the story forward and motivates the main characters at that point, Sakamoto reveals that the true focus of the series is his story's numerous complex mother-daughter relationships. These relationships cause and resolve the characters' inner turmoil (even for Yamamoto Koji's initially slimy reporter character), making them the catalyst for each episode's emotional climax.
Despite the serial nature of many Japanese drama series, each episode is usually structured independently even in script form. Sakamoto takes advantage of this, offering an emotional climax in each episode. Even though these scenes - usually extended monologues or drawn-out separation scenes - are both staples of Japanese television dramas, directors Mizuta and Naganuma Makoto (Yasuko to Kenji) shoot them in a surprisingly subtle style that seems to belong more in theatrical films than a typical television drama. Brilliantly framed and edited, these scenes are proof that directing television is not simply following words in the script and that it can take the same amount of talent as directing theatrical films.
Of course, such scenes would be impossible to pull off without the series' uniformly strong (and predominantly female) cast. As expected, Matsuyuki is exceptionally strong as the star, effectively carrying Nao's cold personality while still making her a likeable enough character to follow. However, the true standout of the show is the six-year-old Ashida Mana as Reina. Her bright persona lends a much-needed dose of joy to the heavy emotional weight the show puts on its viewers, stealing every scene in a convincing performance that would exhaust any trained actor. As strong as all the actors are on Mother, Mana's Reina is one of the most memorable child drama characters in recent memory, and she is likely the character that everyone is guaranteed to remember.
Fortunately, Mana doesn't completely overshadow everyone else behind or in front of the camera. Thanks to the effort of the entire production, Mother is easily one of the strongest television dramas to come out of Japan in recent years. Frequent drama viewers may need time to get used to its slow pace, but those willing to immerse themselves will find a strong, touching story about redemption that is well worth the search for it. Rather than trying to break through its genre confines, the makers of Mother simply take familiar conventions of age-old genres - the family melodrama, in this case - and show us that they can still produce stories that are worth telling.
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