“Don’t bore me by being ordinary”
The saying goes as follows: “behind every great man stands a great woman”. No words are truer said for renowned sculptor/designer Isamu Noguchi if Hisako Matsui‘s film Leonie is any indication towards a mother’s stewardship into a life providing the freedom necessary to achieve one’s dreams. Written by the director and David Wiener from Masayo Duus‘ biography The Life of Isamu Noguchi: Journey Without Borders, the easy story of an artist’s genesis is pushed aside for the lesser-told journey of the courageous woman who risked everything to have him. Leonie Gilmour (Emily Mortimer) refused to surrender hope when her famous poet of a husband Yone (Shidô Nakamura) left America without her to return to Japan, instead finding the strength to stand alone against a culture looking to steal her son away.
Raised an independent and opinionated woman by her own headstrong mother (Mary Kay Place’s Albiana), Leonie studied at the Sorbonne in Paris before arriving home educated and ready to conquer the world with college BFF Catherine (Christina Hendricks). As it was the turn of the century, however, such ideas were never to be easy. Catherine ends up marrying a man that leaves her wanting for nothing inside the “grandest of prisons” and Leonie finds her way to the apartment of her soon-to-be lover courtesy of a classifieds ad. Fighting hard to get Yone’s first foray into prose published—a presumptuous tale through the eyes of a woman that only helps prop up his already astronomical ego—Leonie puts everything she has behind his success only to watch him walk away when she needed him most.
With the Russo-Japanese War on the horizon, Yone leaves because he no longer has anything to keep him in America despite a wife and the unborn child he accuses of being fabricated to hold him captive. Not to be defeated, Leonie moves west to California to raise her son with Albiana’s help. Still in contact with Yone abroad, her hopes of reconnection never die to the point of eventually accepting his offer of moving to Tokyo three years later. While we in the audience know exactly what will happen next—as does her mother—Leonie’s optimism is unwavering. Arriving in the foreign land to teach English and be kept under her husband’s thumb with cultural tradition firmly on his side, her feelings of isolation are exacerbated and she finally accepts the truth.
From here the film takes us through the years as Leonie adapts and learns to love Japan and the students in her care. Women’s rights still being new and fragile at the time did however mean she would remain on the outside—especially after divorcing her literary hero husband. She makes friends, does everything in her power to give young Isamu the education he deserves, and refuses to buckle under mounting pressures put upon her after discovering she’s pregnant once again. Now set to raise two illegitimate children on her own with World War I approaching, she continues down her unpaved road of independence. Isamu is taken out of school to hone his artistic proclivities, the trio moves to a remote town to build a new home, and life carries on.
At this point Leonie takes a misguided turn. Still focused on its titular heroine, we start skipping years more rapidly in order to coincide with her rendezvouses opposite an older Isamu (now played by Jan Milligan). I’m not sure if this change occurred because of the extensive recuts made by producers to get the piece palatable to American audiences (it was released in Japan back in 2010), but what was solely about a mother quickly turns to the famous son. Missing are the years spent raising Ailes Gilmour (Kelly Vitz), Leonie’s evolution as a single mother in the Pacific, or even what happened to Yone after Isamu was sent to a US boarding school to avoid war. Instead decades pass through the burgeoning artist’s eyes as though his mother’s work had been completed.
Matsui’s film is a testament to a time and place mired in the difficulty of being a woman and one who stood against the inequality. Mortimer brings Leonie to life as a beautiful creature refusing to pander to tradition, showing it was okay to live selfishly as a woman just like the man who thought he could buy her compliance with money instead of love. It is a journey full of tragedy and misfortune that she traverses with a never-say-die attitude to ensure the safety and success of her children. Empowering and inspirational, her life never falls prey to the fame of her husband nor the constraints society imposed. Constantly fighting for those she loved, Leonie Gilmour became the woman her mother hoped she would.
With that said, we travel many years only to find ourselves off topic once Isamu is sent away. All footage of the aging Leonie is excised besides an occasional smiling face recollecting the success of her son as she tells us the story rather than the original cut’s oration on behalf of him. There is no mention of Ailes’ success as a dancer, no depiction of Leonie’s last days, and no semblance of any tough times post-WWII leading to her death. What we are left with instead is one last joyous impression of a woman finally freeing herself from the idyllic life she believed she’d have with Yone. Leonie is therefore transformed into a film about the mother of Isamu Noguchi instead of a woman’s courageous life, suffering as a result of pretending that’s all she was.
[1-3] Author: Patti Perret ©Leonie Production Co., LLC. Courtesy monterey media.