Every once in a while you come across a completely shameless tearjerker and are actually happy for the maudlin treacle. This is the case with Naomi Kawase’s True Mothers, the official Oscar entry from Japan. Over the course of a deliberately paced two and a half hours, the film makes no illusions and no apologies for its heartstring tugging, and for a lot of other projects, that would be a disaster. But with the careful, empathetic tenderness with which Kawase and her cast deliver the story, the movie ends up so much the better for wearing its proverbial heart on its sleeve.
Told mostly through flashbacks, the story is a familiar one, about a Tokyo couple who adopt a baby. Mother Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) has always wanted a child, but her husband Kiyokazu (Arata Iura from After Life) is essentially sterile. Through a program called “Baby Baton,” (because the child is “passed on” to a new family, you see) they adopt an infant boy, who they name Asato (Reo Sato), from a teenage mother named Hikari (Aju Makita), who lives at a retreat with other pregnant women wishing to give up their baby until she delivers. One day, Satoko and Kiyokazu’s world gets thrown for a loop when someone claiming to be Hikari blackmails them to either give her back the child or pay her off.
It’s a basic story that’s been done before, from films like Losing Isaiah to Big Daddy and just about everything in between. Most of them have predetermined good and bad guys to set up the conflict, and oftentimes the child is an innocent victim caught in the middle, more of a plot device than an actual character. Here, however, the film lovingly takes its time to not only make sure Asato is a real kid with real feelings and curiosity, but that both mothers have complete context for their positions.
In a lot of films, a lengthy run time can bog it down, making it feel like the proceedings are being dragged out for no real purpose. Here it’s 100% clear that the time is needed for us to fully understand our dual protagonists. Patient steps are taken to show how much Satoko and Kiyokazu love each other, how much they want a family, and how much they’re willing to give up to make it happen. There’s a highly-invasive procedure to basically extract sperm from Kiyokazu’s scrotum, and while he fears injury and possible side effects, he’s fully ready to go through with it to make his wife happy. He’s even willing to give her a divorce if she wants, if having a child is that much of a priority for her. When they learn of Baby Baton, its founder, Shizue Asami (Miyoko Asada) says that one of their rules is that one parent must be home to raise the child. Since the two work for the same company, Satoko is the one willing to quit her job to be a mom at home, shelving her career for the next several years for the sake of their family.
As Asato grows, both of them acquit themselves as loving, devoted parents. The film even spends a good deal of the first act on an incident at school where one of Asato’s friends hurts himself, and there’s a question of whether Asato pushed him. Both parents grapple with wondering whose story to believe, how they should discipline their son, if at all, and how this might have been different if Asato were their biological child (another condition of the program is that the child must be told that they’re adopted before they enter elementary school as an example of the virtue of honesty). When Asato asks if he should just apologize to make things better regardless of what actually happened, you just want to give him the biggest hug for being such a sweetheart, and again when the truth of the situation is revealed.
On the flip side, Hikari’s story is equally compelling and understandable. A 14-year-old middle school student (Japan’s age of consent is 13), she gets her first boyfriend, and one thing leads to another, but at no point is it hinted that there was anything untoward going on. She and her beau are a cute, teenage dating couple. There’s no pressure on anything. They hang out, flirt, sing to one another, and fall in teenage love before the inevitable impregnation. In a tragic turn, since Hikari had never had a period before, she doesn’t know she’s pregnant until it’s too late to abort. Her family ships her off to Hiroshima and the Baby Baton program to cover up their shame, but Hikari does her best to remain light and positive. She makes friends with the other girls at the house, and sees a mentor figure in Asami. After she gives birth and tries to return to normal life, she’s shunned by her family and moves out, doing odd jobs and trying her best to be there for everyone around her, even when it repeatedly comes back to bite her.
More than half the film is spent on this sort of character development to present the nebulous case as to who is more entitled to be Asato’s mom. Aside from the letter of the law (Baby Baton adoptions are closed and the birth mothers do agree to cede all parental rights), a strong emotional argument is made on both sides. Satoko (and Kiyokazu by extension) have put in every effort to be the best parents they can be, learning and growing along with their son and showing a willingness to sacrifice for his benefit. At the same time, Hikari, despite her youth, is shown to be a naturally nurturing person, clearly willing and able to provide the love and support that a child would need. There are clear shades of grey here.
What’s more, Kawase, who also co-wrote the screenplay, filters in a little bit of mystery to tease our preconceived notions about proper parenthood. If there’s one true difference between Satoko and Hikari apart from their age, it’s their living situations. Satoko lives a privileged life while Hikari is very-near abused. Many things have been given to Satoko, including a child, while Hikari has had everything taken from her. There are certainly social class distinctions to be made. And yet, the two arrive at essentially the same place emotionally when it comes to Asato.
However, Kawase intentionally films Hikari in early scenes to obscure her face ever so slightly, including lots of awkward angles and more than a fair share of bowing. Along her journey, Hikari also makes two friends who tend to wear yellow jackets. That way, when the woman who claims to be Hikari confronts Satoko, all we see are those same obfuscating angles and the yellow jacket. Kawase is challenging us to presume that this is possibly not Hikari, but that maybe one of her friends (who are established as having ill repute) might be pulling a scam. There’s a legit puzzle here, because either someone got Hikari’s information and is trying to extort Satoko, or so much has happened to Hikari as to make her unrecognizable to the people to whom she gave her child, and it’s up to all of us to sort that out in our head and question our own biases before the truth is revealed. And no matter what the answer is, it’ll rip your heart clean out of your chest.
This film knows exactly what it’s trying to do, and it’s quite adept at it. It appeals to your most basic emotions and plays on your sense of empathy to create a true dilemma centered around the concept of the family unit. It’s shameless in its tactics, but expert in its execution, daring you to judge anyone in this story while also giving you all the time necessary to process your own thoughts and feelings before revealing the naked truth and pure love of the characters. Just as you have to be patient while raising a child, so too does the film demand that you take every second to learn about these people and understand their points of view. In lesser hands, this would be melodramatic tripe. Here, it soars.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What do you think of films about adoption? Whose side would you choose? Let me know!