True Mothers review: Naomi Kawase's film explores nuances of motherhood but succumbs to its clichés
The film made its Indian premiere at the 26th Kolkata International Film Festival this year, and is Japan's official nominee for the Oscars 2021.
It is a rather curious fortuity how I happened to watch two films that premiered in India last week, centered on mothers and ideas of motherhood — one being Renuka Shahane's Tribhanga starring Kajol, Tanvi Azmi and Mithila Palkar on Netflix, and the second being Japanese director Naomi Kawase's True Mothers (2020) at the 26th Kolkata International Film Festival. My primary grouse with stories on motherhood is their pathological need to virtue signal, which in this case the former managed to subvert, while the latter just about skirted at every bend.
True Mothers is Japan's official nominee for the Oscars this year, and is an adaptation of a 2015 novel by mystery writer Mizuki Tsujimura. It fits the director's repertoire like a glove. For those unfamiliar with Kawase's oeuvre, her preoccupation with motherhood, parenthood, birth, abandonment and family have come to define her larger mind space, which is heavily — and understandably — influenced by her personal experience of being abandoned by her divorced parents as a child. She was raised by her great-aunt, with whom she reportedly shared a rocky relationship as well.
The film follows the life of a five-year-old boy Asato, whose wealthy adoptive parents — Satoko Kurihara (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu Kurihara (Arata Iura) — battled aspermia, and later stumbled upon the idea of adoption while watching a documentary on the telly. It was an advertisement for a facility named 'Baby Baton', situated in a blissful and sublime island off the Hiroshima coast that matched despairing couples with mothers who could not afford to raise their children born into unsuitable circumstances. Run by the middle-aged and altruistic Shizue Asami (Miyoko Asada), the organisation mandates that a parent resign from their job to look after the child full-time. This is where the Kuriharas meet the 14-year-old Hikari Katakura (Aju Makita), mother to a child born of a passionate affair with high school heartthrob Takumi (Taketo Tanaka), who returns six years later to blackmail the couple for her son, or money. The episode, expectedly, upends their lives, and forms the hinge on which the story revolves.
True Mothers sets the stage for a mystery, only to emerge as a torrential teenage romance in one part, and family and social dramas in others, rendering the approach a tad disoriented. However, what it does accomplish rather surprisingly are cliffhangers placed at opportune moments that compel the audience to not leave their seats and exit the theatre midway into its languidly-paced 139-minute runtime. (A few did run out of patience by the 20-minute mark though.)
Kawase fans will not be disappointed with the generous number of times the camera dwells on blindingly sunlit skies and seas — the director's signature — that also attempts to underline the nature-versus-nurture trope in the film, of how we are all children of the same Mother Earth, tied to her umbilical cord by the vast oceans. It establishes an intimacy that is mirrored in her close-ups, capturing the characters' twitching facial and hand muscles, helping the audience enter their minds for brief seconds.
Kawase grants her characters enough and more room for vulnerability, which in turn carves moments for the film to really shine — perhaps even brighter than her seas and skies. It rescues the screenplay from sinking into boring priggishness the moment the lens wavers, distracted and succumbing to clichés on motherhood. The mothers deserve better, which they do get served but rather inconsistently — a hitch that might have been addressed with tauter editing, perhaps?
However, beyond all its obvious vices, True Mothers successfully foregrounds the crippling weight of motherhood borne by women. The term 'mother' is pregnant, quite literally, with connotations that have historically curtailed a woman's mobility. It underlines the female existence with an emphasis disproportionately more aggressive than with which 'fatherhood' influences the male existence. It comes as no surprise, then, that when Shizue orders a parent to abandon their professional aspirations to raise their child, the camera hovers over a woman's face.
The screenplay sharply juxtaposes this social disparity between the roles of a mother and a father through two scenes. In the first, a forlorn and inebriated Kiyokazu tells his friend at a sketchy bar about his inability to impregnate his wife, an issue that could only be solved by operating on his scrotum to extract his sperms — a graphic illustration that leaves his friend squirming. The scene lucidly explains the nature of the act of becoming a father — a fairly clinical process with a missing follow-through, which is conventionally marked by a lack of commitment and absenteeism. This plays out in sharp contrast against the third segment where Hikari, now a disillusioned 20-year-old in Yokohama working at a local press, meets Tomoka, a young woman fleeing from loan sharks. The scene in question finds a rattled Hikari consoling a bruised Tomoka after the former finds out that she has been fraudulently named as the latter's guarantor, and is now responsible for paying off the debt to save both their lives (an episode that crucially ties the different tracks together). Hikari's compassion moves Tomoka into calling her "as caring as a mother" — words whose irony only reminds us of the mother's burden of caring even when one does not want to or necessarily have to. It is a weight carried exclusively by women, whether or not they sign up for the role, in a cis and heteronormative society that ascribes motherhood to a uterus instead of a person. It demands undue emotional investment that is suitably matched to the unreasonable defection it assigns to fatherhood.
True Mothers tries hard to be didactic, but — fortunately for it — fails only too often to emerge as mostly warm. However, it turns overwhelmingly saccharine in other instances, thereby significantly decelerating its two hours and 20 minutes of runtime — a bit of a damp squib for what could have made for far more compelling and impactful storytelling.
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