True Mothers (Asa ga kuru)

Japan (2020) Dir. Naomi Kawase

Define “mother” – is it someone who gives birth to you or someone who raises, nurtures, and looks after you in life? Obviously, this can relate to fathers too but given the bond that forms during pregnancy, there is an argument the question is more gravid for women.

Conceiving a child was a long-term struggle for Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu Kurihara (Arata Iura) due to the latter’s low sperm count, until they happened across Baby Baton, a non-profit organisation that pairs off childless couples with babies put up for adoption. They are assigned a son, Asato, whose biological mother is 14 year-old Hikari Karakura (Aju Makita), deeply distraught at giving her baby up but knows it is for the best.

Six years later and Asato (Reo Sato) is at kindergarten. Satoko is called by the school after a boy is injured during playtime and accuses Asato of pushing him. Satoko worries if this is Asato displaying behavioural signs of his birth mother. Then, a girl claiming to be Hikari calls the Kuriharas, demanding she gives Asato back to her, or pay her to keep his adoption a secret. When they meet, Satoko and Kiyokazu aren’t convinced the girl is really Hikari.

Naomi Kawase has been in the news recently for alleged bullying behaviour on the set of her films and unreasonable requests made of her actors. Indeed, during the filming of True Mothers, it is said she assaulted a camera assistant leading to the entire camera crew to quit the production. I mention this because it seems so unbecoming of a director who could make such a gut wrenching and humane film as this.

Adapted from the novel Asa ga kuru by mystery writer Mizuki Tsujimura, the story takes a very simple premise with a moral grey area then twists the narrative by exploring the lives of the principal players to further cloud the issue. This isn’t to say every judgement call is necessarily correct but the idea is open our eyes to the emotional turmoil such a situation begets in people.

The mystery element of this relatively straightforward story per Tsujimura’s leanings is applied via the timeline hopping – the film opens with the kindergarten incident then we jump back six years to detail the Kurihara’s issue with conceiving. This segment probably didn’t need to take up 20 plus minutes – Kawase trimming this section could have spared us the 140-minute run time – but does convey the anxiety of both husband and wife in learning where the failings are how options are limited.

Unquestionably, the most educational facet of the story is how adoption is not as rife a solution as it is here in the west. This seems a little unlikely sine the Kurihara’s learned about it via a TV programme, but at the same time, the presentation of the TV show was moe of a revelatory one of a taboo subject, and not a run-of-the-mill human interest story. This makes the blackmail threat seem less specious to our sensibilities knowing this.

Baby Baton is explored via both flashback arcs. First, we meet the founder Asami Shizue (Miyoko Asada), a former nurse unable to have kids herself who meet many other infertile women and those with unwanted pregnancies. Her altruism is purely for the sake of the children – one of her non-negotiable rules is that one parent must stay at home to raise the child; if they both work, one must quit.

Via Hikari’s story, we get to see inside the operation, a small boarding house in a remote part of Hiroshima where the girls stay until they give birth. Here Hikari meets Konomi (Rio Yamashita), one of many young women coerced into sex work and impregnated by a client. Hikari’s conception with class hunk Takumi (Tanaka Taketo) was consensual, but he avoids her afterwards while her family rage in disgust and horror.

It might seem obvious where the story goes but don’t be hasty with assumptions. The use of flashbacks and intertwined timelines is a distraction from the predictable, planting seeds of doubt and ambiguity so that we revaluate our opinion of the girls. A deliberate ploy as the whole tone of the film is not to demonise women who give up their children but to understand them, hence what is for Kawase an atypical saccharine climax.

Watching this film today in the wake of the current abortion furore in the US, does throw a different light on the subject of adoption and how it benefits both the child and the childless couple. In that regard, the semi-documentary approach to all the Baby Baton related scenes lends credence to the philanthropic concerns of the adoption process. Similarly, had Kawase streamlined the material, the exploration into Hikari growing up knowing her son is being loved elsewhere could have had benefited from more time.

For Kawase covering a sensitive subject set largely in suburbia, this hasn’t stopped her  from using her trademark B-roll shots of nature and bucolic vistas to evoke atmosphere and whimsy. For example, she captures a magical moment during the Hikari-Takumi courtship of catching the sun between Hikari’s fingers, which she later envisions doing with Asato by way of escapist reverie.

Getting the audience invested in this convoluted, heart breaking scenario requires not just strong direction which Kawase provides (or else!) but also a capable cast. Hiromi Nagasaku is, in my opinion, one the most underrated actresses in Japan, and whilst Satoko is a “typical” role, her performance is as ever humane and rich with empathy. Holding her own against Nagasaku is Aju Makita as Hikari, another talented teen to look out for.  

Quietly devastating yet openly sentimental and maybe even slightly manipulative, True Mothers shows if Kawase spent less time attacking her crew and being a better person, she’d understand how her films have the power to touch us in unexpected ways. Sharing the love isn’t a bad thing blood bonds or no blood bonds.

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