There are cinephiles who are transported to aesthetic nirvana by Naomi Kawase’s eco-spiritualism, and there are critics who flee her cinematic ashram. Neither will be wholly satisfied with “True Mothers,” the director’s contemplation of motherhood and adoption, which is her most plot-driven but least visually lustrous film yet. Like most of her previous features, this one also made Cannes’ official selection, only this one had to wait till Toronto to premiere after COVID struck. Resembling the relationship-based “Sweet Bean” (An), this dip into less mystical waters may give the film wider reach beyond French devotees to non-art-house fans of melodrama, especially in Asia.
Kawase’s father walked out at her tender age, letting her grandmother shoulder much of her upbringing. The wounds of abandonment are lyrically evoked in her debut “Suzaku,” as well as in “Shara” and “Still the Water,” while her enduring absorption with birth and her self-perception as her grandmother’s adopted child are apparent in numerous documentaries, including “Katatsumori,” “Birth/Mother” and “Chiri.”
Surprisingly, considering her personal stake in the topic, what is conveyed about motherhood in “True Mothers” is not particularly profound. Granted, her depiction of childbirth and child-raising as separate experiences is often illuminating. Yet, her depiction of the former is oddly distancing: The delivery occurs offscreen, and there’s just one shot of a swelling belly. This is radically different from the intensely visceral, joyful pain of labor she conveys in “Shara” and “Tarachime.” Instead, the fuzzy idea that we are all children of Mother Nature is touted through a marine motif that suggests all seas are connected, as water connects a fetus to the mother’s womb.
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The Japanese title “Asa ga Kuru” (Morning Comes) is likely a pun on Asato, the boy at the heart of this adoption conflict. Adapting Mizuki Tsujimura’s novel of the same name helps impose more of a narrative framework than is typically found in Kawase’s oeuvre, although the film’s mix of genres — from marital drama to teen romance to social commentary — don’t gel. Fortunately, editors Tina Baz and Yoichi Shibuya steer multiple timelines with admirable clarity, advancing the plot smoothly despite the 139-minute running time, even mounting some cliffhanger suspense.
The narrative, divided into three acts, is driven by different turning points in the protagonists’ lives. The first introduces well-to-do Tokyoites Kiyokazu Kurihara (Arata Iura, “Air Doll”) and his wife Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku, “The Furthest End Awaits”). Their life seems perfect, brightened daily by their adorable son Asato (Reio Sato). However, a flashback reveals the ordeal they went through trying to conceive, and how a TV program led them to Baby Baton, an NGO founded by Shizue Asami (Miyoko Asada) to help young women with unwanted pregnancies find a home for their babies.
Through deeply intimate domestic scenes, one realizes even such quotidian activities as watching Asato brush his teeth or accompanying him on a walk to his kindergarten are privileged pleasures they couldn’t take for granted. Iura’s sensitive portrayal of a loving husband struggling to hold up amid the guilt and his hurt male pride, is quietly compelling.
The Kuriharas’ security is shattered by a phone call from Hikari Katakura, Asato’s birth mother. When a disheveled-looking young woman finally calls at their home, Satoko has reasons to believe she is an imposter. Another flashback transports audiences to Nara, where Hikari (Aju Makita) was still a carefree 14-year-old, and dating good-looking classmate Takumi (Taketo Tanaka) seems like a no-brainer. From her side of the story, the experience of inopportune motherhood provides a counterpoint to Satoko’s desperate efforts to have children.
At the same time, Kawase cannot help indulging in her favorite odes to young love, weaving in her trademark mystical images of forests and other nature symbols. Yet try as she might, she can’t recreate the electrifying vitality or sensuousness of adolescence in “Shara” or “Still the Water.”
The intention to underline the social impact of broken families or unsympathetic parents also feels half-hearted. The teenage girls’ charmed lives at Baby Baton, a place run like a hospitable B&B located on a paradisical island off the coast of Hiroshima, blunts the social and emotional impact of their plight. Similarly, Shizue’s image is so altruistic and nurturing, she embodies a one-sided advocacy of adoption, brushing aside complicated moral questions.
The third segment introduces Tomoka, a runaway girl in Yokohama, who becomes key to the mystery plaguing the Kuriharas. Although the representation of vulnerable youth adrift in the intimidating city borders on cliché, the denouement delivers a cathartic and moving reconciliation. Credit goes to Nagasaku’s tensile expressions, which outstrip most of the dialogue in emotional weight.
One of a few films by Kawase not set entirely amid the lush flora and fauna of her native Nara, “True Mothes” instead features urban landscapes and interiors of Tokyo and outlying Yokohama shot with lithe, roving camerawork by DP Yuta Tsukiaga and cinematographer Naoki Sakakibara. They fulfill Kawase’s love of handheld shots and smothering closeups. Most strikingly, lighting is sometimes so ostentatiously overexposed it casts a trance-like haze, as if lensed by the sight-impaired photographer in “Radiance.” The meaning of this is obtuse, though Hikari’s name (which means “light” in Japanese) and lyrics of the theme song may provide clues.