Nov 25

“My Little Sweet Pea” – Film Review from the 18th Japanese Film Festival (Australia and New Zealand)


Eden Law (Fukushima-ken ALT 2010-2011) reviews My Little Sweet Pea, a film of the haha-mono genre, or “mother stories”. Guaranteed to make you call your mum and if not, you’re either an orphan or dead inside.

My Little Sweet Pea

Why haven’t you called your mother yet?

“My Little Sweet Pea” is a genre film, one that is quite an old trope in Asian cinema, that of the self-sacrificing maternal figure who patiently bears all the insults and trials (usually originating from her family or ungrateful children), until finally her passing or fatal illness causes her former tormentors to repent their evil ways and express remorse in a climax of tears and self-blame. In Japan, it’s known as haha-mono or “mother stories”, and it’s an enduringly popular style of melodrama (my mother loves them to the point of identifying with the main character, and I don’t know what that says about me).

In this particular entry however, the mother character is not the main focus, but one of her children – her daughter Mugiko. Mugiko and her brother Norio have lived together since their father died, until one day their absent parental unit, Ayako, suddenly shows up, asking to move in, after having being missing for almost all of their lives. Begrudgingly, they allow her in, although Norio disgustedly moves out, leaving his sister alone with their mother. Mugiko subjects her mother to all sorts of nasty, unfilial treatment, before Ayako suddenly passes away from an unrevealed terminal cancer. As per custom, Mugiko has to travel to her mother’s home town to bury her ashes, which sparks a journey of discovery, of herself and the mother that she had never known.

Western tastes might find this kind of movie to be a tad over the top, as the mother character is by necessity, almost a caricature in how inhumanly compassionate and submissive she is – obviously she’s meant to elicit as much sympathy from the audience as possible while at the same time whipping up the accompanying feelings of indignation to such a frenzy that only an appropriately melodramatic or tear-soaked climax would suffice. But while “My Little Sweet Pea” ends the way you’d expect, it’s luckily a little more subtle in its emotional manipulation. As the audience explores Ayako’s past alongside with Mugiko, and as Mugiko gradually comes to realise and empathise with her mother, we also come to sympathise with the errant prodigal child, so that her emotional realisation and remorse is all the more touching and moving than it would have been, had we just simply hated her for being a bitch instead. Horikita Maki does very well in this regard in conveying a character that the audience could have disliked intensely, and she also does double duty in playing both the daughter and the mother (in her younger years).

“My Sweet Little Pea” still has its over the top moments, but it is also unexpectedly humourous in parts, allowing a deeper level of emotional complexity beyond “angry” and “crying”. A tear-jerker, it is nonetheless enjoyable and will make you feel the urge to call up your mum or hug her to apologise for being the brat that you most certainly were.


My Little Sweet Pea (Mugiko-san to) by Yoshida Keisuke, released December 21 2013 in Japan, starring Horikita Maki, Matsuda Ryuhei, Yo Kimiko, Nukumizu Yoichi, Asou Yumi.

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