By Diana Cheng
AAP Film & Arts Writer
“True Mothers” is acclaimed Japanese director Naomi Kawase’s (Sweet Bean, 2015) newest feature. It is Japan’s official entry to the category of Best International Feature Film at the 93rd Academy Awards set for April, 2021. A past winner with multiple nominations over the years at Cannes, now is the first time Kawase has a chance at the Academy Awards. This is only the third time Japan has sent a woman director’s work to the Oscar race in 67 years.
Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) is the mother of an adopted boy Asato (Reo Sato). She has long resigned to her husband Kiyokazu’s (Arata Iura) infertility. The couple have been parenting Asato in happy contentment for six years, until one day a phone call from the birth mother, Hikari (Aju Makita), shakes up their calm family life.
Hikari is 14 years old when she gives birth to the baby. While her love for the school-mate father of the child is genuine, family pressure does not permit her to keep the newborn. Asami (Miyoko Asada), the benevolent founder of the Hiroshima adoption agency Baby Baton saves her from disgrace. After the adoption process is completed, Hikari is estranged from her family and lives on her own. Friendship with another girl later both salvages her self-esteem as well as pits her into a precarious path.
True to the title, Satoko explains to six-year-old Asato that he has three mothers: the one who gives birth to him, the one who raises him, and the director of the Hiroshima adoption agency who kindly welcomes Hikari into her shelter and arranges the later adoption. Kawase’s non-linear storytelling adds intrigue to the otherwise simple plot.
However, it takes Kawase 140 minutes to tell the story of the three mothers. While cinematically the film is appealing and Kawase’s handling is gentle and sensitive, the momentum lags, diminishing the effect of poignancy.
North American viewers might find the distinctive cultural elements in the film. Instead of telling the story from a legal framework, the movie focuses on the relational and affective aspects. From the magical realism of her last feature “Vision” (2018), Kawase shifts to a realistic exploration of the psyche of motherhood and female friendship. The main cast delivers some emotionally charged performances, albeit in a quiet and reserved manner.
The subject matter of adoption and the meaning of motherhood have been dealt with in recent films. Examples are Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” (2018), and the popular mini-series “Little Fires Everywhere” (2020) adapted from Celeste Ng’s novel. Here in “True Mothers”, Kawase has offered another visual story, one that’s less intense but more on the melodramatic effects and opening a cultural window not seen in those other works.
“True Mothers” will be screened at Film Movement’s Virtual Screening of International Oscar Entry Series in January. For details go to their website here.