True Mothers is one of Naomi Kawase’s best films to date, a thoughtful drama about the shame associated with unconventional motherhood. Keep up to date with our TIFF ’20 coverage.
It’s a shame that Naomi Kawase’s features have a tendency to vanish from English-speaking countries as soon as they make their festival run, because she’s a uniquely thoughtful, sensitive filmmaker. True Mothers is perhaps my favourite of her films I’ve seen (Still the Water, Sweet Bean, and Vision) because of how smartly it deals with what it means to be a mother, and sadly, the sheer amount of shame that is associated with it.
True Mothers is the rare story of an adoption told from two perspectives and in two parts: first, the adoptive mother, Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku), and then, the birth mother, Hikari (Aju Makita). Both women’s stories start before their son was born, and both women’s stories continue well after, until they meet again. Because Hikari got pregnant too young, at 14, her family is ashamed of her, attempting to hide the pregnancy altogether, and then expecting her to get over the traumatic separation from her child immediately. By contrast, Atoko was unable to get pregnant due to her husband’s infertility, a source of such shame for him that he suggests she consider divorcing him on learning of his problem. Their inability to get pregnant is a source of shame for both of them. This is magnified for all parties involved because Japanese culture strongly emphasizes genetic bonds, something Hirokazu Koreeda explored less effectively in Like Father, Like Son.
For both women, the process of getting or creating the boy, Asato (Reo Sato), is a traumatic one, and the trauma doesn’t disappear as soon as the boy is handed off. Instead, Hikaru suffers from depression and marginalization, while Satoko still questions her bond to ot her son whom she didn’t create. Although they are open with their son about his birth mother, a subplot in which someone tries to blackmail the adoptive parents about this suggests that navigating how they tell this story is no easy matter.
Kawase’s often handheld camera gets close to both women, allowing us to share their sense of touch, and feel closer to their experiences. There are no histrionic fits nor melodrama, but there is a quiet melancholy that pervades the film, as we watch the women face so many obstacles, including the societal silence around all unconventional paths to motherhood. Kawase captures a tenderness between Satoko and her husband, in the way she shoots their bodies in space and in relation to one another, even when they struggle to share their feelings about their path to parenthood. She also finds moments of reprieve, usually in nature, when Satoko and her husband go hiking, and when Hikari spends time at the bucolic home owned by the adoption agency.