5 February 2014 | shawneofthedead
A powerful, heartbreaking story about a little girl surviving against all odds.
In the early 1980s, pretty much the entire country of Japan was obsessed with a television series about the trials and tribulations of a girl named Oshin. The 297 15-minute episodes, broadcast twice a day for about a year, broke ratings records. Viewers were riveted by Oshin's life story, from her youngest days as a live-in servant through to her marriage and eventual establishment of her own business. It's easy to see why: thirty years after she first captivated audiences, Oshin remains a wonderful character, heartbreak and strength wrapped up in a determined little package.
Director Shin Togashi's film focuses squarely on a young Oshin (Kokone Hamada) who, at the tender age of seven, must leave her home and family to work as a live-in servant for a timber trader. But, tough as her circumstances already are, the vicissitudes of life do not spare Oshin. Soon, she finds herself stumbling through a blizzard into the forsaken log cabin of ex-soldier Shunsaku (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), before she fetches up in the home of the wealthy rice-trading Kagaya family, run by its matriarch (Pinko Izumi).
In remaining true to the spirit and narrative of the television series, this incarnation of Oshin has the tendency to feel rather episodic. It's quite easy to trace the beats and rhythms of a more fragmented story. But that doesn't really detract from the power of Oshin's tale, which is really one about mothers, daughters and women. As it turns out, three decades has made little difference to an age-old story extolling the virtues of sacrifice, humility and perseverance, one that's told here with great sensitivity. The frequent tests of her fortitude and integrity – not to mention the depths that her own mother (Aya Ueto) must sink to in order to make ends meet – will wring tears out of the hardest of hearts.
Hamada is a marvel. Beating out close to 2,500 other candidates for the part, she carries the film easily on her tiny shoulders. As Oshin, she switches – seemingly effortlessly – from sunshine-bright innocence to steely resilience. She's so enormously expressive that it's almost impossible to take your eyes off her in a scene, even when she's surrounded by a great cast of supporting actresses. Ueto and Izumi are both excellent, the former despairing of the need to essentially sell her daughter into indentured servitude, the latter transcending class and prejudice to see the intelligence and spirit burning within Oshin. Fans of the original television series will be thrilled, too, to see Ayako Kobayashi – who played Oshin then – as a mother within the Kagaya family.
It's no wonder that Oshin's story has become part of Japan's cultural heritage – and a symbol of strength and endurance the world over. In a media industry that still has trouble developing and portraying powerful, rounded, non-sexualised female characters, Oshin comes as a breath of fresh air – which is, sadly, all the more troubling for the fact that this is a story that's thirty years old.