Wednesday, June 23, 2021

264. Japanese film director Naomi Kawase’s fourteenth feature film “Asa ga kuru” (True Mothers) (2020), based on a novel by Mizuki Tsujimura: A contemplative cinematic essay on mothers of various hues and ages


Director and co-scriptwriter Naomi Kawase, co-scriptwriter Izumi Takahashi and novelist Mizuki Tsujimura present a diversity of candidates in the film True Mothers who could fit the title of the film.

Confrontation between the biological mother
 (left) and the foster parents (right)

First, there is a biological mother, Hikari, a young teen in school, who accidentally becomes 24-weeks pregnant following a tryst with a teenager.

Second, Hikari’s own mother is another type of elderly mother, who is embarrassed by her teenage school-going daughter’s motherhood and wants to hide those facts from friends, neighbors and Hikari’s school. She obviously wants to protect her daughter’s and her family’s image in society for the future.

Asami (Miyoki Asada) (center) runs the Baby Baton,
showering happiness to so many

Third, there is Shizue Asami, who runs an adoption organization called “Baby Baton,” located in a secluded resort helping young mothers-to-be prepare for the birth of their children and arranging for their adoption by couples yearning to be parents. The elderly and kind Asami (Miyoki Asada who played the role of the shopkeeper’s wife in Kawase’s An/Sweet Bean) is another kind of “mother”-figure for the young mothers-in-distress awaiting the birth of their unwanted offspring and process the eventual adoption of the newborns. It is interesting to note that Hikari, much after the birth of her son, seeks help from (and refuge with) the elderly Asami rather than her own biological mother. 

Fourth, much later, in the film young Hikari herself, exhibits motherly love for another girl, close to her own age, she had met at Baby Baton extending limited financial, moral and emotional support in her time of need. 

The foster-mother Satoko and her husband
take the child Asato to school

Fifth and a strong candidate for  the “true mother” title in the foster-mother (Satoko) who adopts the child Asato (through Baby Baton) with her husband showering love and care, because they are unable to have a biological child of their own due to sterility issues, long after their marriage.

Finally, there is another kind of mother, whose son suffers a fall in the school and holds Satoko’s son Asato  responsible for the mishap and aggressively demands financial compensation from Satoko, who is relatively affluent and can afford to pay the medical expenses.

If King Solomon of the Bible were to sit in judgement over who among the above six exhibits values of a “true” mother in this Japanese film, it doubtful if he would have found a clear and satisfactory clue to make a non-controversial judgement. In the Biblical tale, after hearing the pleas of two ladies each claiming to be the mother of the child, Solomon said he would cut the child in half and give an equal part to each claimant. The true mother in the tale gives up her claim so that the child would live and Solomon realized she indeed was the true mother among the two claimants. That is the rhetorical question Ms Kawase is posing at the viewer of the film to figure out like King Solomon: who among the six “mothers” has the best attributes to be called a true mother.

There is a reason for Naomi Kawase to be interested in making the film on mothers and their offspring. Ms Kawase was brought up by her grandmother, not her mother. Her father, too, was absent as she grew up under the care of her grandmother.

The decision to adopt a child can be painful
before enjoying the rewards

The film is indeed sentimental. Childless couples do dream of a child of their own. In Japan, however, same-sex couples are not allowed to adopt. In Japan, as in most countries, a pregnant school girl would inevitably face social trauma and boycott, not support. The film’s fictional Baby Baton enterprise serves an important social function but, in the film, it ultimately closes shop, for reasons never stated.

Water and trees in a concrete jungle, provide 
natural succor for the troubled mind

Kawase film offers sophistication beyond the presentation of interesting human characters; True Mothers is no exception. Trees are silent characters as in The Mourning Forest and Still the Water. The sea and waterfronts provide solace to the troubled characters. The birds do bring messages of the stork. Kawase, like Terence Malick, brings to the fore connections between humans and nature in each of their works and it is for the perceptive viewer to pick up those threads. Kawase’s films try to connect normal human beings with those living on the margins of society and try to construct bridges of connection between generations. In The Mourning Forest there is reversal of the roles of the nurse and the nursed, both grieving for personal losses, one of a dead wife, another of a dead child with a forest supporting the two characters, “sometimes gently, sometimes strictly” in Kawase’s own words. In Sweet Bean, a trio of social misfits without a family meld into a virtual family. In Hanezu, Kawase presents the unfulfilled love triangle of grandparents of lovers, mirrored in the present day love triangle, with spiders and arachnids as nature’s metaphors to the tale. In Still the Water, the mother of the lead character dies and her boyfriend’s father is physically absent. Yet the connections between generations are made visually with banyan trees and the waters of the sea. A Kawase film always offers more than the obvious and True Mothers is no exception, with contemplative sequences, without spoken words, accentuated by birds, trees and waterfronts.

All types of "mothers" in True Mothers are very credibly presented and all the actors are a treat to watch. True Mothers is a rare Kawase film that is not based on an original script written by the director. Kawase and her co-scriptwriter  Izumi Takahashi adapted the Japanese “mystery” novel by Mizuki Tsujimura. However, there is an additional  personal touch here, Kawase herself was brought up by her grandparents in the Nara region of Japan, which is where the biological mother in True Mothers is originally from. In Kawase’s films, the little details add more value than the obvious tale.

P.S.  True Mothers won the 2021 Best Director award for Ms Kawase at the Mainichi Film Concours, Tokyo, Japan. Ms Kawase’s earlier feature films Shara (2003), The Mourning Forest (2007), Hanezu (2011), Still the Water (2014), Sweet Bean (2015), and Vision (2018) have been reviewed earlier on this blog. True Mothers is one of the author's best films of 2021.  Ms Kawase is one of the author's favorite 15 active film directors from all over the world.