Ôsone-ke no ashita [Morning for the Osone Family] (1946)

Morning for the Osone Family is the rare war story that doesn't show the war at all. Instead, this is interested in the ordeal of two women dealing with family politics, cultural constraints, and grief as the war claims those they've loved and threatens their hope for the future. It's a fascinating film, though I want to acknowledge my background leaves me underqualified to discuss it in any real detail. This is, of course, a Christmas blog, so that's going to color how I approach the film. But while this has a great deal to offer in that context, the holidays are really more a side thought. They serve enough symbolic and tonal purpose to warrant discussion here, but this certainly wasn't intended as a "Christmas movie," nor would I describe it as such. I'll do my best to at least touch on the other themes, but anyone interested in the film's place in Japanese culture or post-War cinema will probably want to find a resource more equipped to discuss those topics in depth.

The film opens on either Christmas Eve or the night after Christmas, with the Osone family and a guest singing Silent Night. The immediate family consists of the matriarch and her four children, all but the youngest of whom are young adults. The only daughter, Yuko, is in love with and engaged to be married to their guest, but he's just been drafted, putting a hold on their plans. The oldest son, Ichiro, is a political dissident taking after their late father, and before the night's over he's placed under arrest.

Yuko's hopes of marrying her boyfriend grow even more imperiled when her uncle, an influential Colonel, calls off the engagement, ostensibly for political reasons connected to her brother's arrest. He informs her that he'll arrange a suitable husband for her, a prospect she's naturally uninterested in.

The movie soon jumps ahead a year. The uncle and his wife move in due to their house being damaged. They perform minor favors for Yuko and her mother - things like arranging for Yuko to have a relatively cushy office job instead of the difficult labor people lacking connections are stuck with - though they neither ask for nor want special treatment. At the same time, their uncle is happy when Taiji, the middle brother, is drafted. The uncle views it as an opportunity to serve his country and grow, but the artistic Taiji fears for his life.

The family's third son, Takashi, enlists voluntarily despite still being in school, terrifying his mother but delighting his uncle. This is after another time jump - the movie keeps moving forward towards the war's inevitable conclusion, which is more or less what the still imprisoned Ichiro predicted at the beginning.

By the time we get to 1945, Taiji was injured and passed away in a hospital. Takashi nearly survives but dies just before the end of the war - the news is brought by a friend of his.

The uncle remains defiant, blaming the defeat first on those who surrendered then on the people of Japan. Meanwhile, Yuko and her mother have had enough - they tell their uncle in no uncertain terms who's responsible for the suffering the nation has endured while he's enjoyed a life of comfort. He's thrown out of their house, Yuko's fiancé returns, and Ichiro is released from prison. The family - and the nation - has been through an ordeal, but they have hope for the future.

Like the movie itself, we'll start with Christmas, which performs a couple jobs in the movie. First, it acts similarly to the holidays in many contemporary American movies, at least superficially, by contrasting what should be a happy time with unexpected emotional weight. In addition to the extended Christmas sequence at the beginning (about the first twenty minutes), the music to Silent Night plays quietly near the end when they receive word Takashi has died. There's no reason to think it's literally Christmas - in fact, I'm pretty sure it can't be, based on the actual timeline of the end of the war - but the holiday music is used as an emotional callback.

But it's the other subtext around Christmas I find truly interesting. The movie views Japan's pre-war traditional, militaristic culture as regressive and to blame for the nation's misfortune. In contrast, the newer Western ideas of democracy and freedom are framed as a way forward. Christmas is a symbol of progressive reform, a fact drilled home when the uncle pulls down a decoration.

I find this fascinating in part because while tonal portrayals of Christmas in American movies of the 1940s were often similarly bittersweet, the somber aspects are typically longing for a lost time and missing innocence. In US Christmas media of the era, the underlying idea is fundamentally conservative in nature - it's interesting seeing the same tone used in service of progressive, anti-nationalist themes.

Side note: I want to reiterate that I'm not endorsing or challenging the movie's thesis or decision not to hold the US culpable for its actions - I'm merely attempting to describe what the movie is saying. I suspect some of the movie's positive depictions of US culture may have been influenced by politics, which further complicates any interpretation.

Western ideas are only one aspect of the film's progressivism. The movie implies that there's nothing un-Japanese about such concepts, telling us some of the characters (as well as the late patriarch) pursued progressive, peaceful reforms, only to be defeated by militarism and nationalism.

The movie also has feminist leanings. The two main characters are women, and in both cases their arcs involve them taking a stand against the violent, patriarchal individual valuing pride over life and freedom.

I realize I sort of buried the lead here, but the movie's extremely well-made. The cinematography is beautiful and affecting, and the performances are both subtle and layered. Anyone with an interest in films of the era will find this well worth checking out.