True Mothers review: Naomi Kawase’s adoption drama feels boxed in by the melodrama

Clarisse Loughrey
·3-min read
<p>Hiromi Nagasaku and Arata Iura in ‘True Mothers’</p> (Curzon)

Hiromi Nagasaku and Arata Iura in ‘True Mothers’


Dir: Naomi Kawase. Starring: Hiromi Nagasaku, Arata Iura, Aju Makita, Miyoko Asada. 140 mins

Naomi Kawase’s work is an odyssey of the soul. As a child, the Japanese director, was abandoned by her birth father and raised by a great-aunt. Those milestones have come to shape both her life and her art, with Embracing (1992) and Katatsumori (1994) both using the documentary format to seek resolution with those looming parental figures. More than that, she’s allowed these childhood emotions to bleed into the very roots of her fiction films, which cling to any nurturing impulse.

That belief in simple kindnesses has brought her acclaim both at home and abroad. It also drives her latest film, True Mothers, which was selected as the Japanese entry for the Best International Feature Film at this year’s Oscars – although it did not secure a nomination. Her film explores the nature of parenthood through bonds both biological and emotional, finding equal value in both. A married couple, Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Arata Iura), are confronted with a woman who claims to be the birth mother of Asato (Reo Sato), whom they adopted as a newborn. She demands either the return of her child or enough money to keep her away. Is she really who she claims to be?

What distinguishes True Mothers is also what keeps it a step removed from Kawase’s delicate, sensory style. The film is an adaptation of Morning Comes, mystery writer Mizuki Tsujimura's 2015 novel, and so demands a more rigorous narrative than usual from the director. The result feels more accessible, though less enchanting in its execution, its spirit boxed in by the demands of melodrama.

The film doubles back on itself several times to keep the identity of the mystery woman hanging in the air. The first flashback explores Satoko and Kiyokazu’s motivations for adoption; the second delves into the history of the birth mother, Hikari (Aju Makita), a 14-year-old student whose parents have treated the pregnancy like an embarrassing rash. She’s told to fake an illness and drop out of school, before she’s handed off to Baby Baton, a non-profit adoption agency that provides women who cannot care for their future child with a place to stay and the guiding hand of Mrs Asami (Miyoko Asada).

Hikari’s (Aju Makita) abandonment by those she loves leave her wandering through the film like a ghostCurzon Cinema
Hikari’s (Aju Makita) abandonment by those she loves leave her wandering through the film like a ghostCurzon Cinema

These stories intertwine in a way that never feels all that satisfying. It’s more of an obligatory gesture at conflict than anything substantial. It’s far better when we’re simply allowed to marinate in Kawase’s world. Take the sun-bleached stillness of the Hiroshima Prefecture coastline, where Mrs Asami dwells, which envelops and protects the vulnerable in her care – often sex workers who have been shunned by their employers. And there’s a tenderness, too, to the way Kawase’s camera always seeks out a character’s hands: those of young lovers tracing circles on each other’s flesh, or a parent and child trying to capture the sun between their thumbs and forefingers.

Kawase’s cast embrace the power of small gestures, especially Makita. Hikari’s abandonment by those she loves – her family and her boyfriend – leave her wandering through the film like a ghost. Her shoulders slump and her back starts to curve, so that her hair often ends up falling in front of her face and obscuring her features. But Kawase, the eternal optimist, knows how to bring her back to life.

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