'True Mothers' ('Asa ga Kuru'): Film Review

Courtesy of TIFF
Sensitive throughout, heart-wrenching only in part.

Celebrated Japanese director Naomi Kawase explores adoption from two angles in her new drama.

A middle-class couple who can’t have children turns to an adoption agency for a baby, only to find their happiness threatened years later when their son’s biological mother shows up and demands him back. Though the story is based on a novel by mystery writer Mizuki Tsujimura, True Mothers (Asa ga Kuru) is a true Naomi Kawase film: a lush visual reworking of parental angst and despair, offset by frequent interludes of communing with that great healer, Mother Nature. It is, at least in its closing hour, a moving dramatization of maternal feelings, and could gather new fans for the Japanese director.

A Cannes selection, it premiered to Toronto audiences and has been making the rounds of festivals ever since.

Although there is more plot for a mainstream viewer to grab hold of than in Kawase’s early work, narrative is not where the film is at. Any mysteries in the original novel are set to rest early by editing that jumps back and forth in time and anticipates the young mother’s return. Instead Kawase focuses attention on the emotional reactions of two women, returning to the questions of birth and motherhood that have haunted so many of her feature films and documentaries, including her Cannes Grand Prix winner The Mourning Forest.

The most predictable and least interesting part of the 139-minute drama is its first half, in which we consider the problems of the married Kurihara couple. Their attempts to have a baby have failed, despite husband Kiyokazu (veteran Arata Iura) submitting to a series of painful surgical procedures for aspermia. His self-abnegating wife Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku from Rebirth) hides her disappointment and tells him, insincerely, that it’s okay for them to be a childless couple. The first hour drags as Kawase and co-writer Izumi Takahashi illustrate how the two have tried everything and resigned themselves to childlessness.

Suddenly, they think of adoption. A TV show introduces them to “Baby Baton,” a non-profit organization run by the saintly Mrs. Asami (Miyoko Asada) to put couples wanting to raise a child in touch with women unable to care for their babies.

The film turns an emotional corner when Satoko and Kiyokazu’s baby arrives — a healthy, bouncing boy they name Asato. Mrs. Asami asks if they want to meet the birth mother. They do. A teenage girl with a bowed head appears before them in tears with a letter for the baby so he won’t forget her. Her parents cower in shame in the background.

This unsettling scene, one of the film's finest, switches the story over to the young mother, Hikari, and the circumstances that have forced her to give up her baby. Played by the luminous Aju Makita, who had small roles in Kore-eda’s Shoplifters and After the Storm, she’s a happy 14-year-old when she starts dating her classmate Takumi (Taketo Tanaka). In a mystical forest scene whited-out with sunlight shining into the camera, the consummation of their first love is depicted in all its innocent beauty and intensity. What follows is a nightmare.

By the time Hikari’s belly begins to show, it’s too late for an abortion. Her mortified parents pull her out of school and try to cover up. The girl is in shock over Takumi’s spineless abandonment, and she ends up in Mrs. Asami’s home for unwed mothers, which rather unbelievably is located on a paradise island off the coast of Hiroshima. There she passes the last months of her pregnancy gazing out to sea and mutely reflecting on life. Framed in big close-ups and profiled against the setting sun, Aju Makita conveys the depth and interiority that make Hikari a real heroine, even without the help of dialogue.

Time passes and Hikari strikes out on her own, cutting herself off from her prejudiced family. She works a paper route with the bleakly chipper Tomoka, a former sex worker and another of Mrs. Asami’s young mothers. Their bond plays a role in Hikari’s final, desperate attempt to find her son, the scene that appears at the beginning of the film. Hidden behind long bleached hair, the girl has been so changed by life that the frightened Kuriharas aren’t sure it’s her. The story continues to a surprising ending.

The camerawork is beautiful to look at, whatever it’s shooting: The city exteriors are deeply harmonious while the interiors reflect the quiet orderliness of Japanese family life — even Asato’s toys are neatly arranged in his room. But it turns to sensuous abandon when lighting Hikari’s face, silhouetting her against the sun, sea and foliage. Tina Baz and Yoichi Shibuya’s editing, which plays such an important role in telling the story out of sequence, has a slow, deliberate rhythm yet is always clear and unconfounding.

Production companies: Kino Films, Kinoshita Group, Kumie, Kazumo
Cast: Hiromi Nagasaku, Arata Iura, Aju Makita, Miyoko Asada, Ren Komai, Kokoro Morita, Reio Sato
Director: Naomi Kawase
Screenwriters: Naomi Kawase, Izumi Takahashi, based on a novel by Mizuki Tsujimura
Producer: Yumiko Takebe
Executive producer: Naoya Kinoshita
Directors of photography: Yuta Tsukinaga, Naoki Sakakibara
Production designer: Setsuko Shiokawa
Editors: Tina Baz, Yoichi Shibuya
Music: Akira Kosemura, An Ton That
World sales: Kino Films International
139 minutes