’True Mothers’ (Japanese movie w/subtitles): Review by Hannah Singer

I am an adoptive mom of an 8th grader, adopted from birth, just like the adoptive parents in this movie.

When I was offered to review this movie, I was somewhat reluctant. Even after all these years, I am sensitive to the situation. Basically, I didn’t want to be upset or cry all day. Heaven knows we have a lot to cry about these days. And so I am looking for things to bring me joy. I am happy to say, this movie did just that. It brought me joy. Yes there were some tears towards the end, but it came from a different perspective which surprised me. What I mean by that, is that I cried deeply when the adoptive mom showed empathy to the birth mom. After accusing her of lying, she apologized. This part got to me and I cried for a few minutes. It was a good cry, from a good place.

The movie begins with beauty in nature, a recurring theme throughout. It takes place in Tokyo which is on Tokyo Bay and near majestic mountains as seen in the film. It is a different look of Tokyo from the last Japanese film I had seen, “Lost in Translation”. The director obviously has a love for Tokyo which is presented as aesthetically beautiful and calm. The natural lighting throughout and the colors of nature represented in the peoples clothing and rooms adds to this. Nature is another character in most scenes where we look through windows or are on a balcony looking to the beauty outside. When the adoptive couple Satoko and Kiyokazu Kurihara (played by Hiromi Nagasaku and Arata Iura) take a trip to some large ancient site with large rock formations, at a “Hot Springs” one says, “Rocks, they’re Earth’s memories.”

The cinematographers are Naomi Kawase, Naoki Sakakibara and Yûta Tsukinaga. The aethetics in this movie are simply beautiful. Everything is understated and minimal which we know modern Japanese design to be. There are subdued colors everywhere. We see a lot of close ups of peoples faces and hands which evoke emotions. The camera represents us and it is often as if we are also another character in the room. The movement is natural and not rigid. The camera goes where our eyes might go if we were in the room, looking at someone’s hands for instance if they are squeezing them out of nervousness.

The director is Naomi Kawase. She has her actors bring out their best. The acting is impeccable from the adoptive couple to the young girl who plays the birth mother Hikari Katakura (played by Aju Makita) or ‘Hiroshima Mother’ to her birth son, Asato Kurihara (played by Reo Sato). Every expression looks natural. Crying did not look forced. Even the youngest amongst them. Flawless and natural.

The movie moves back and forth carefully and seamlessly from present to past. Whenever we wonder what happened, we then see. The Kuriharas are living life happily with their kindergartener. An incidence occurs at school and we see how it is handled and at first we don’t know who to believe or trust. But we see that the couple and their son handle it lovingly and thereby gaining our trust.

We are shown how they first decided on adoption and how they got their son. We see them meet the birth mother briefly in an emotional spontaneous meeting. Here we see how both mothers share a moment and how much they each care about their mutual son. Unlike many American movies, there is no bad guy here. We see how both parties care deeply and are navigating the best way through it with the child’s best interest at heart.

It was interesting for me to see the process of adoption and how different it is to the US. For instance in the United States today, we only have what’s called open adoption. The level of openness is really up to the adoptive parent, but both sides do get to meet, even if briefly, whether they go through a lawyer or an adoption agency. They may decide, which is often the case, to have a few photos and an updated letter sent yearly to the birth mom, which often goes through the lawyer or agency. But I have also known adoptive families to vacation with birth families making a big happy extended family for the child. That takes strength for all involved, but is so healthy for the child to feel loved by both families.

The Kuriharas hear about an adoption agency on a television show and both realize this is the route they want to go. They do this after much struggling with procedures to help them get pregnant. They say to the agency selflessly, “I thought we would be able to help out.” When they meet with the agency called “Baby Baton”, we hear that only couples may adopt who have been married for over 3 years. One parent must stay home full time with the child, without exception. Unlike in the US where you can be a single parent and you can also have a full time job. I like the line that the agency used to recruit. “ We unite those who can’t have children to those who can’t raise them.”

When the Kuriharas first apply to the agency, they have to give a boy and a girl’s name in preparation for the birth. We don’t do that here. Sometimes parents take weeks to name their child trying to fit a name to his/her personality. The head of the agency, Shizue Asami (played by Miyoko Asada), when in the hospital later on, she says “ The baby I want you to have has arrived.”  And then they are asked if they want to meet the birth mom. The adoptive mom thanks her for giving birth to him. She gives them a letter for the child.

We meet the birth mom and her boyfriend and the love they share. But she is only in 8th grade. She finds out about plenary adoptions where the birth mothers stay in a facility until they give birth. This helps keep the honor in the Japanese family, who, in this case, end up saying she had pneumonia. The girl is very sweet and innocent and what she goes through is projected in this movie with empathy and love. She doesn’t want to give up her child, but she has no choice. After coming home, she is too unhappy there because her family are more interested in other peoples perception than her feelings. She leaves and some problems ensue. She needs money and she comes across the birth family’s contact information which brings her to them. First she asks for her son and then for money or she will spill the beans on him being adopted (but everyone already knows, no one is ashamed of it which may be a surprise to her because her family was so ashamed of her pregnancy).

The adoptive parents don’t recognize her and they don’t realize what she has gone through to come to this desperate place she is in her mind. After calmly listening, they tell her she is not who she says she is and they tell her to leave. When the police come by looking for her (she did not show up for work) and they say her name, the mom realizes her error and goes out looking for her. She finds her by the sea and emotionally begs her to forgive her. And then she introduces her son to his Hiroshima mom. A sweet moment for all 3 people.

I really enjoyed this movie. It brought me a sense of calm. If you enjoy great acting, beautiful aesthetics and you want a taste of humanity and the depth of bonds between people (as many of us are so isolated now), then this is the movie for you. If you like foreign film, this is for you. If adoption has touched your life, then this is for you. This movie is Japan’s Oscar entry for best International Film.

Directed by: Naomi Kawase
Written by: Naomi Kawase, Izumi Takahashi
Cast: Hiromi Nagasaku, Arata Iura, Aju Makita, Reo Sato, Hiroko Nakajima,
Tetsu Hirahara, Ren Komai, Taketo Tanaka
Produced by: Yumiko Takebe
Cinematography: Naomi Kawase, Naoki Sakakibara, Yûta Tsukinaga

See it streaming here starting January 29: https://www.filmmovement.com/true-mothers


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