Naomi Kawase's "True Mothers”: Japan’s Superb Entry for the Academy Award
This review contains plot spoilers
At the outset “True Mothers” seems almost a cliché: a happy couple with an adopted child get an unexpected jolt when his desperate birth mother suddenly appears. Fortunately, nothing is as it appears in Naomi Kawase’s masterful film, and the great pleasure of watching is its uncertainty. What begins as the story of a mother, father and five-year-old son keeps shifting, beginning with a red herring and ending on a surprisingly hopeful note.
In between, we see flashbacks of Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Arata Iura) Kurihara's struggle with infertility (male, for a change) and their decision to adopt via an agency called Baby Baton, which they discover via a documentary. Impressed by the dedication of its founder, Shizue (Miyoko Asada), the Kuriharas apply, are accepted, and travel to the agency’s island headquarters to pick up their infant son. They also elect to meet his birth mother, a fourteen-year-old named Hikari (Aju Makita), who gives them a letter to read to the baby, called Asato .
Five years later Hikari telephones to demand the child’s return or, alternatively, hush money for not revealing the child’s adoption to his school. The Kuriharas call her bluff. According to Baby Baton’s rules, they have told Asato, his school and the neighbors that he is adopted, an important factor in a country with a long tradition of adopting the children of relatives, friends and colleagues, but little history of adopting the children of strangers. Meeting Hikari in person, the Kuriharas initially doubt her identity, since she barely resembles the middle schooler they briefly.
The film then shifts from Tokyo to Nara, and in flashback becomes Hikari’s story. At fourteen she falls in love with a schoolmate and conceives before the onset of menarche. (Here again there’s a surprise: the boy is kind, also in love, and heartbroken by the events.) By the time Hikari knows she’s pregnant it’s too late for an abortion and—having also seen the documentary--she elects adoption via Baby Baton.
Again and again “True Mothers” defies stereotypes and expectations. The island is tranquil and beautiful, Shizue is kind and motherly, and the other girls—young bar hostesses and sex workers impregnated by customers—are friendly. Hikari’s real troubles start when she returns home to Nara, where her narcissistic mother is concerned only for the family’s reputation and her daughter’s high school entry exams. Devoid of comfort and love, Hikari flees back to the island, discovers Asato’s adoption papers and makes her way to Tokyo. A school dropout and runaway, she ekes out a living near the high-rise apartment where her son is growing up. (Even here there’s a surprise: an employer who not only provides a place for her to live but looks out for her safety and well-being in a perilous time.)
Naomi Kawase, who directed and co-wrote the script with Izumi Takahashi and Mizuki Tsujimura based on Tsujimura’s novel, is the first Japanese woman director to reach the Oscars, an overdue honor for someone who won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 1997. Now, nearly thirty years into her filmmaking career, Kawase will direct the official film of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She’s a worthy successor to the great Kon Ichikawa, whose "Tokyo Olympiad” has been the gold standard for sports films since its release in 1965.