Based on a novel by Mitsuyo Kakuta, “Rebirth” is a long, complex, highly nuanced meller that plays like an aestheticized, post-feminist “Stella Dallas.” Constantly flashing back and forth between past and present, this visually expressive, continually surprising psychological study follows the fortunes of three individuals deeply affected by a serious crime: the woman whose 4-year-old daughter is returned after having been stolen as an infant; the baby-snatcher, who has motivations of her own; and the child herself. Winner of 11 Japan Academy prizes including best picture, director Izuru Narushima’s film could kindle wider fest and arthouse interest.
“Rebirth” opens with a trial, where Etsuko (Yoko Moriguchi) hysterically demands that accused kidnapper Kiwako (Hiromi Nagasaku) receive the death sentence. Addressing her hatred directly toward the camera, Etsuko accuses Kiwako of trying to steal her husband, then robbing her of the formative years of her daughter, Erina (Konomi Watanabe), who no longer regards Etsuko as her real parent and pines for her abductor instead.
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Similarly addressing the camera, Kiwako refuses to feel guilty, expressing only sorrow that she must give up her beloved “daughter,” whom she renamed Kaoru. She explains that her lover, Etsuko’s husband, forced her to abort their child, and the operation left her barren; furthermore, Etsuko phoned Kiwako daily to taunt her for her inability to bear children. But any thoughts of revenge quickly faded as she bonded with Etsuko’s baby; a key scene in which Kiwako absconds with Erina is filmed with heightened subjectivity, under a driving rain that shuts out the rest of the world.
The film then shuttles between the present-day Erina (Mao Inoue), herself pregnant by a married man, and flashbacks to her happy early years with Kiwako — memories hitherto repressed by Etsuko’s acerbic denunciations, but slowly resurfacing as Erina revisits enchanted scenes of her childhood. These moments depict Kiwako seeking refuge for a few years in a cloistered commune where she and “Kaoru” work alongside nuns, tilling soil and preparing meals. But the poison gas attacks in the Tokyo subway put all cults under suspicion, and Kiwako then flees with the child to a remote pastoral island whose natural rhythms, impressive vistas and torch-lit rituals give resonance to the pair’s shared lives.
The “rebirth” Erina experiences as she rediscovers joy in the remembrance of things past allows her to connect with her own unborn child and to reacquaint herself with a landscape alive with associations. Helmer Narushima’s contemplative, slowly unfolding collection of privileged moments allows for an almost miraculous catharsis, as cynical emptiness gives way to wonder and acceptance.