Though perhaps not too familiar to younger western viewers, “Oshin” was one of the most popular and influential Japanese television series of the last few decades, comprising some 297 episodes of 15 minutes and enjoying a massive share of the audience both at home and abroad during its original airing back in 1984. Inspired by the life of Wada Katsu, founder of the Japanese supermarket chain Yaohan, this new screen adaption focuses on her childhood and her tough experiences growing up during the Meiji period, and was directed by Togashi Shin (“Angel’s Egg”). The young Hamada Kokone stars in the crucial leading role, having been apparently chosen from nearly 2500 other hopeful candidates, backed by Ueto Aya (“Thermae Romae”) as her mother and SMAP’s Inagaki Goro as her father, with the original series stars Kobayashi Ayako and Izumi Pinko also taking supporting parts.
The film opens in 1907, in Yamagata Prefecture, with the seven year old Shin (Hamada Kokone) being forced by her father (Inagaki Goro) to leave her impoverished family behind to work as a housekeeper for a timber trader, despite the protestations of her mother (Ueto Aya). Her new life is tough, and after being accused by the cruel madam of the house of stealing, she runs away, crossing paths with Shunsaku (Mitsushima Shinnosuke), a deserter on the run from the army. A brief happiness doesn’t last, and she ends up working as a babysitter and maid for the wealthy Kagaya family, and though the matriarch (Izumi Pinko) treats her kindly, the young daughter Kayo quickly takes a dislike to her.
Although updating something as beloved as “Oshin” was always going to be a risky move, Togashi Shin’s succeeds, partly by staying faithful to the source material, and partly due to the strength of the story itself. Where the series really stood out was through its substantial and extremely well-written female characters, who remain at the centre throughout, most of the men being bit part players at best. This is also true of the film, with Shin, her mother and the various matriarchal figures she encounters serving to make a quietly powerful statement about the female role in Japanese culture and the many ways in which Japanese women, though traditionally stereotyped as being submissive wallflowers, are the backbone of the country. In the thirty years since it originally aired, there hasn’t been too many other series, or indeed films with this kind of depth, and “Oshin” and its messages still feel very relevant today.
Choosing to focus purely on Shin’s childhood years proves to be a smart move, as it allows the film to really explore her developing character in detail – trying to pack her entire life into a two hour feature would surely have been at best a rushed and unsatisfying affair. The film works well as a biopic, with a steady pace and an anecdotal though engaging feel that reflects its episodic television roots, moving efficiently between Shin’s experiences. Sacrifice, hard work and honour are the key themes, and though she certainly suffers and ends up in numerous tough and unfortunate situations, the film earns its tears and only occasionally resorts to heartstring tugging melodrama.
Young actress Hamada Kokone is somewhat of a revelation in the crucial lead role, making Shin likeable and believable as she struggles on and battles against the continuing harshness of life. It’s hard not to feel moved or to root for her as she drags herself through the bleakly beautiful snowy landscapes, Togashi Shin showing an accomplished visual sense while keeping the film grounded as she undergoes her many trials.
For anyone not familiar with the television series and what made it so popular, “Oshin” might admittedly not sound terribly interesting, its premise suggesting a pretty basic and potentially and sentimental tale. Thankfully, both as a new version of the show and as a film in its own right, it’s an exceptionally well-crafted and intelligently written drama with uncommonly strong female characters and a message that still rings true today.
Shin Togashi (director) / Kota Yamada (screenplay)
CAST: Kokone Hamada … Oshin
Aya Ueto … Fuji Tanimura
Kayoko Kishimoto … Tsune
Manami Igashira … Kayo