“We think back through our mothers if we are women”– Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.
By Emily Zou
Obachan’s Garden is a 2001 documentary directed by Linda Ohama, made to honor and remember her grandmother. (Obachan means grandmother in Japanese). Despite this simple conceit, the film takes on a wholly different life as the past is revealed and history is questioned. Moreover, the concepts of what a “good mother” is, are questioned, as well as how different cultural expectations of mothering can clash with each other.
The act of creating film centered on mothers and their experience of motherhood itself disrupts how we are used to learning about history– through our fathers and grandfathers. “Male- centered assumptions about history, as well as feminist ambivalence about motherhood, have complicated the enterprise of searching for mothers in history” writes Jodi Vandenberg-Daves in “Teaching Motherhood in History”. The act of remembering through our mothers offers not a new, but hidden perspective from the past.
“Ryosai Kenbo” is a Japanese word meaning “good wife, wise mother”, introduced during the Meiji period (1868-1912). Based on Confucian ideals of filial piety, it reinforces the idea that women could best serve their country by working at home. This was the ideal that Obachan was raised under, Obachan’s Garden explores how Obachan was trained from a young age to become a housewife, learning languages and dancing. Obachan then relocates to Canada as a picture bride, only to reject her husband the moment she sees him. She works for years to repay him for the ticket to Canada.
Motherhood in Canada was rapidly changing in the pre-World War Two era (when Obachan immigrated), with focus on an idea called the “Good Mother”, where mothering became more “professional”. There were more expectations on what a mother should or shouldn’t do, and the act of mothering became much more heavily scrutinized. A study by Western University explored how advertisements and magazines targeted mothers during this time period, “If mothers indulged their children with too much attention, their children would grow up to be dependent and sissified. Mothers who attended too little to their children’s needs and too much to their own, turned into screaming shrews, and their children became neurotic and fearful. If these precautions were not sufficiently intimidating, the articles also held up mothers who did everything so perfectly that they became unbearable prigs”. It is clear, then, that the way to be a mother was, and still is, heavily influenced by the rest of society.
All of this creates a multi-layered backdrop for Obachan as a mother, a complicated one that is explored through the documentary itself. Ohama paints a picture of a family learning more about their matriarch and her history.
Indeed, the documentary explicitly tells the audience the profound themes the film will explore. “How do we learn about things that have happened before us? And what about memories, what people remember? Are these memories always real?” Narrated over dreamy visuals, Ohama explores how our memory is fallible, how the stories that we hear are always one-sided. Through really getting to know her grandmother, the documentary pieces together a complicated past with motherhood.
In her article examining Obachan’s Garden, Sheena Wilson writes that “the telling of mother-stories can be reclaimed as an act of resistance, whether mothers are telling their own stories, or daughters and granddaughters are retracing their matrilineal genealogies”. We need more of these stories to “think through our mothers,” to see our history from their point of view.
Fullerton, Romayne, and M.J. Patterson. “Procrustean Motherhood.” FIMS Publications, 2010.
Larsen, Robert. “Ryousai Kenbo Revisited.” Hastings International and Comparative Law Review, vol. 24, no. 2, 2001.
Wilson, Sheena. “Obachan’s Garden.” Demeter Press, 2016.
Read about Emily’s Remote Internship with MOM: Reviewing Motherhood in Cinema [CLICK]