Hiromi Nagasaku and Arata Iura in True Mothers (2021)
The lingering power of Naomi Kawase’s new film, True Mothers, stems from an extraordinary level of patience. This slow-burning exploration of two mothers, whose worlds collide from different experiences of adoption, takes time to craft an emotional family drama. Kawase gently peels back the layers of an intertwining story about parenthood, societal expectations, and heartbreak of giving up a child. Based on Mizuki Tsujimura’s novel ‘Asa ga Kuru,’ True Mothers weaves from one character backstory to another and takes intriguing turns along the way. The film unfolds with an appetite for welcoming multiple perspectives on a shared experience, and each of the central characters’ journeys are given weight. The story centers on a couple who decide to adopt a child after struggles with infertility, and grapple with their moral dilemmas when the child’s biological mother enters the picture wanting her son back. Kawase’s adaptation strikes a stunning balance between two worlds, and how two mothers’ lives are forever connected from afar. True Mothers is a beautiful interwoven journey of love, and the emboldened actions taken to uphold a family.
The introduction to Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku), Kiyokazu (Arata Iura), and their adopted son Asato (Reo Sato) shows a glimpse into their settled life as a family. It’s clear early on that this little boy has full support from his parents. When Satoko receives a call one day from Asato’s kindergarten teacher, alleging that he pushed another child off a jungle gym, she questions how he could be capable of such a thing. How could she doubt her boy? The other child’s mother calls afterwards, wanting a settlement for his medical expenses. As it turns out, the child had lied. This incident at the school puts the film at a crossroads where the story appears to be going in one direction, then switches gears to an earlier timeline when Satoko and Kiyokazu discuss starting a family. Kawase does a wonderful job in this moment, and throughout the film, to demonstrate the jump between past and present while revealing details about the characters’ intentions.
During initial discussions about having children, infertility is the last thing on the Kurihara’s minds until it suddenly becomes their reality. The fragility felt in this news makes it increasingly aware to them how it’s nothing short of a miracle to make children. While Kiyokazu brings up divorce as an option since Satoko has no chance of getting pregnant with him, she refuses and instead they book a flight for him to get a sperm procedure done overseas. The flight suddenly gets cancelled, and Satoko resigns from the idea altogether. “It’s us two…you and I will go on,” she says. One day, the couple come across a TV program advertising Baby Baton, a non-profit organization intended to pair couples who can’t procreate with mothers who can’t raise their children. It’s a place where children find their parents…”pass the baton, give a child a future,” the program narrates. As Satoko and Kiyokazu watch how Baby Baton transforms lives, they realize they can still be parents. Adoption soon becomes their reality when they take baby Asato home, after meeting briefly with the boy’s mother Hikari (Aju Makita). Kawase makes the choice not to show Hikari’s face clearly during the scene, which adds to the intrigue of this character and creates a cloud of uncertainty when she re-enters the picture.
Six years after the adoption, Hikari calls the Kurihara household. She wants her son back, and threatens to expose the truth of his adoption to everyone the couple knows. If they refuse, she demands cash instead. As tensions mount over the phone, Satoko asks Hikari to meet them in person. The young woman who arrives at their home doesn’t appear to be the same woman they met six years ago. Satoko and Kiyokazu grow more emboldened to defend their family, doubting Hikari’s identity. What truly resonates about this moment is how Hikari gets small details wrong (such as what grade Asato is in) and assumes she’s been erased from her son’s life when in actual fact, he knows about her. The passing of time is felt so deeply, as is Hikari’s need to be truly seen and accepted into her role as a mother. The film morphs into a moving tribute to her side of the story, and how she wasn’t shown acceptance when she became pregnant. Hikari’s story is intertwined with a whirlwind teenage romance, strict family pressures, and the heartbreak of giving up a child she wanted to keep.
True Mothers holds so many threads together without losing focus. Each and every frame is absorbing to watch. Naomi Kawase’s direction captures scenes like a photographic memory. She recalls moments from the past and cherishes moments of the present in an ethereal way. The direction carries strong emotion and moves with graceful intentionality. The film beautifully weaves together two mothers’ stories, giving both a sensitive and layered character study. The switch from one timeline to the next never feels jarring. Instead, Kawase strikes an intimate connection between the characters and lets the power of that connection take the film to new places. The parallels drawn between Satoko and Hikari are particularly resonating. Satoko embodies what Hikari’s parents did not: the embrace and acceptance of bringing a child into the world.
While this is a lengthy film, the time spent elaborating on the characters’ backstories has a compelling and emotional outcome. True Mothers is an absorbing exploration of parenthood, and the weight of fulfilling the many societal expectations that come with having children. It’s a tale of intertwining stories told in a non-linear way; Tina Baz and Yoichi Shibuya’s editing maintain a clear focus all the way through. An incredibly talented cast, Aju Makita as Hikari being the standout, bring their characters to life and make the film feel all the more immersive to watch. From moral dilemma and exposé to romance and mystery, True Mothers intertwines universal themes into a lingering study of character.