Document type
27 May 2007
Format viewed
Asmik Ace

Tree without Leaves

picture: Tree without Leaves (1986)picture: Tree without Leaves (1986)

Original title
  • Nobuko OTOWA
  • Ichiro ZAITSU
  • Meiko KAJI
  • Kazuki YAMANAKA
  • Midori SONO
Running time
105 mins.
Tom Mes

Shohei Imamura's Black Rain (Kuroi Ame, 1989) was not the only solemn, black-and-white, rural drama to come out of Japan in the late '80s. Although Kaneto Shindo's Tree without Leaves is also largely set in the environs of Hiroshima, the title is not an allusion to the mushroom cloud, but to a family without succession.

The story is framed as a series of reminiscences by aging scriptwriter Haru (Kobayashi, no doubt a substitute for Shindo himself, who also wrote and produced the film), who has isolated himself somewhere in the woods of Nagano Prefecture to work on his first novel. As the last surviving member of his kin, he intends to chronicle the family he grew up in, and more specifically the role of his mother.

The story alternates between sadsack Kobayashi wandering through the forest lost in thought and scenes of domestic life six decades earlier. What we learn is that he was the youngest of six children, born when his mother (Otowa, Shindo's companion and favourite leading actress, who played one half of the pair of scavenging women in the director's most internationally lauded film, 1964's Onibaba) was 41 years old. The apple of his mother's eye, he clings to her wherever she goes. Their relationship borders on incestuous: they sleep in the same bed and although he is at least ten years beyond it, they continue the ritual of breastfeeding. Before you can say 'Oedipal complex', we are treated to a bathing scene in which she kisses his little pecker (the scene returns later in the film, this time in slow motion).

Memoirs of a Mama's Boy might have been a better title, then, also because the adult Haru pays no attention to other women, including a busty jogger he crosses on his walks. Even a beautiful female hiker (Kaji) who spends the night at his lodge, is given short shrift. During her brief stay (Kaji's appearance is limited to this one scene), he only talks and thinks about mother. When she prepares to leave in the morning, she finds him alone in bed, lost in his reminiscences. It's an odd experience to see such frigidity in a film by a director best known for his vibrant portrayals of female sexuality.

Shindo was doubtlessly earnest when he made Tree without Leaves. At one point he has Haru say: "Soon I will die too, then there will be no one to remember my mother." Shindo was in his seventies then and no doubt speaking from his own fears of mortality (though as of this writing he is still alive and making films). However, it is this very earnestness and solemnity that weighs the whole film down. It suffers from an extreme form of tunnel vision, not only when it comes to the outside world (no time frame is given, no attention paid to any form of social context in which the family lived), but also within the family scenes themselves: with the focus being on the mother, the other members are little more than figures in the background. This is true most of all for the father, who is barely more than a silhouette sitting motionlessly in a corner of the frame, if he is even present.

It has been pointed out that the absent father is one of the main motifs in Japanese cinema, particularly in films made after World War II. Some posit the symbolic downfall of Emperor Hirohito after Japan's capitulation, when he renounced the divinity of the imperial bloodline, as a turning point - the nation effectively losing its father figure and having to fend for itself in the tough post-war years. Others point toward the more practical and widespread absence of fathers in family life in the years and decades after the war (and also during the war, what with so many men shipped off to the front), when the policy of reconstruction and economic growth incited men to spend more time on the job than at home, resulting in two generations of children effectively growing up without a father. This absence was compensated by an unusually strong bond with the mother, a situation referred to in Japan as maza-kon, or mother complex, which in turn led to a series of social problems, particularly men with underdeveloped social skills and immature emotional lives from having clung too tightly and too long to mother's apron strings.

Tree Without Leaves makes a good candidate for the ultimate maza-kon movie. Here it is the mother who tries to hold the family together when the tides of fortune turn and the father is incapable, even unwilling, of fending off the financial downfall. There is an undeniable power to the scenes in which we see the family lose all its belongings and splinter apart over bad debts, their ancestral home taken apart roof tile by roof tile while the pater familias stoically smokes his pipe while sitting on a salvaged tatami mat. But with the focus so firmly placed on the mother-son bond and the lack of a proper context that would have opened up the narrative and created stronger viewer empathy, this is a film made for an audience of one: Kaneto Shindo himself.


Tree without Leaves

picture: DVD cover of 'Tree without Leaves'
Asmik Ace (Japan)