TJFF Review: 'True Mothers' Is as Beautifully Complex as Life Itself Directed by Naomi Kawase
Starring Aju Makita, Hiromi Nagasaku, Arata Iura, Reo Sato
Published Jun 08, 2021Deep within his novel In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje writes: "The first sentence of every novel should be: 'Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.' Meander if you want to get to town." Ondaatje is talking about all the best works of art, which, because they bring a kind of order to chaos, because they depict the lives of those crucial people who build our world but are neglected by official histories and mainstream narratives, are neither clean nor easy to consume. Accordingly, director Naomi Kawase's True Mothers takes its time as it unfurls: slowly at first, then all at once.
Kawase co-wrote the screenplay alongside Izumi Takahashi. The story begins with the Kuriharas: mom Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku), dad Kiyokazu (Arata Iura), and their son Asato (Reo Sato). Satoko and Kiyokazu adopted Asato as a newborn baby from an agency called Baby Baton (a woman-helmed non-profit that matches infertile couples with pregnant women who can't or don't want to raise their babies) after failing to conceive a child. The family lives a relatively peaceful life until a young women (Aju Makita) claiming to be Hikari Katakura, Asato's birth mother demands the couple give her either Asato or a large sum of money.
True Mothers isn't about blackmail, though. Hikari's calls to Satoko punctuate the first act of the movie, which depicts Satoko and Kiyokazu's relationship: how they meet at work, get married, Kiyokazu's ambivalence about having a child, how they come to learn of Baby Baton, and how Satoko gives up her job to be a stay-at-home mom. Then, when Hikari appears, True Mothers takes a coming-of-age turn. We travel about six years back in time to when Hikari is 14 and see how she falls in love with her first boyfriend, accidentally becomes pregnant and is sent to Baby Baton.
Kawase's directorial hand shows the teenaged Hikari the love and kindness neither her parents nor her boyfriend can show. Kawase depicts, in a way that is a testament to the power of film, what it feels like for a teenage girl to fall in love. With blinding sunlight made even more blinding as it streams through cherry blossoms, and the breeze caressing Hikari's face as she rides her bike home after speaking with her crush for the first time, Kawase puts us in Hikari's shoes, has us see ourselves in her. We not only get to see Hikari shyly fall intensely in her first love, but also see her fearful of this dizzying experience, sweeter than anything she's experienced before. Through this sensuality, Kawase builds a beautiful sense of hopefulness for Hikari, making it all the more complicated when she becomes pregnant before she's even had her first period.
This is all to say: Kawase is a brilliant director who understands her characters and knows how to flesh them out. Satoko's deep desire to be a mother is shown alongside Kiyokazu's simultaneous apprehension about becoming a dad and sense of failure in his manhood when they are unable to conceive. Furthermore, every woman Hikari meets in her life, first at Baby Baton and then as she works odd jobs, is allowed to tell her story without judgement. Teenagers, infertile couples, sex workers, women who run non-profits like Baby Baton — people who are left out of pat official histories but who make the world turn.
All the disparate feelings and themes that charge this movie are more than can be contained in a review, but the most poignant idea that Kawase communicates is the simple power of listening to and remembering a person.
In one gentle scene during Hikari's time at Baby Baton, it's one pregnant woman's birthday. As the other women bring out a cake for her, this pregnant woman begins to weep, saying that this is the first and probably last time anyone will ever celebrate her birthday with her. We never see this woman again, but Kawase shows with this subtle scene that one good memory can be life-sustaining.
With True Mothers, Kawase eschewing any linear understanding of time in favour of an intuitive understanding. Backstories are shown only when the time is right. We learn about Hikari's life only when she soberly lifts her head at the Kuriharas' kitchen table after she has made her ultimatum; the reason behind why she is even demanding money is revealed yet further on, by taking us yet again back in time. This is how True Mothers meanders, trailing like a remembrance that is itself distracted by its own contours, like a Proustian memory within a memory.
With True Mothers, Kawase makes it known that she is a director to be reckoned with. This movie is expertly put together, breathtakingly performed (Makita is stunning as Hikari), and irresistibly told. Like all the best works of art, Naomi Kawase's True Mothers takes its time in depicting the whole of life, chaotic and human. (Film Movement)