What does it mean to truly be a “mother” — a theme that has played out in numerous films at this year’s TIFF (“Pieces of a Woman,” “A Good Man,” “Like a House on Fire”)? But it’s a question that doesn’t have one simple answer as seen in Naomi Kawase‘s touching film “True Mothers.”
The film opens with a beautiful scenic backdrop for the sounds of childbirth as we are introduced to the Kurihara family — father Kiyokazu (Arata Iura), mother Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku), and young son Asato (Reo Sato). Kiyokazu and Satoko are devoted and loving parents to their young son, but we soon find out that they are not Asato’s biological parents. One fateful day, Satoko gets a weird telephone call where she is met with silence on the other end, but she brushes it off. Later that day, a down-on-her-luck young woman shows up on their doorstep saying she is Asato’s real mother and if they don’t give her money she will tell everyone their secret. Little does she know, Asato and everyone else already knows — it is not a shameful secret for them.
“True Mothers” then embarks on a seamless and engaging journey weaving the two interconnected stories together — the Kuriharas’ struggles with conception and the young woman, Hikari’s (Aju Makita) heartbreaking consequences of young love — into one touching story about changing the narrative around adoption and true motherhood. The Kuriharas have struggled to have a child (what’s interesting here is that the film doesn’t use the normal storyline of a woman who is unable to bear a child, in this case, it is the father who has azoospermia) and instead of using it as an out for his wife to divorce him, the two decide to adopt a child through the Baby Baton adoption agency. This agency is not your average agency as it has very specific rules and requirements and they even require that you tell the child before they start elementary school that they are adopted so there is no sense of shame or uncertainty.
Meanwhile, Hikari is a 14-year-old girl who is forced by her ashamed parents into giving her child up to Baby Baton. Only a young girl who has fallen in love with a young boy, her life is changed forever when she finds out that she is pregnant. This is a devastating loss to her, the effects of which will have a significant impact on the rest of her life. As a part of the Baby Baton program, the young mothers are sent to an island off the coast of Hiroshima to carry out their pregnancies with a loving and stable support system. The former nurse who runs the house is like a surrogate mother to all of the young women who come through her doors, even though she has no kids of her own. It is here where these women feel a sense of community and worth.
Five years later, these stories and lives intersect again when Hikari shows up desperately demanding her baby back or money to keep quiet — essentially trying to blackmail the family. Through the use of flashbacks, we see the back story of these two mothers as they come forward to the present moment. “True Mothers” delves into the notion that motherhood can bee more than just blood kinship — one mother would do anything for her child and the other has been begging from the be beginning not to be erased from her child’s life. There are other moments within the film where “motherhood” is on display as well, like when Hikari’s mothering instincts kick in as she helps a friend in trouble or the surrogate mother who runs the Baby Baton house.
This film does a beautiful and touching job of showcasing the many facets of motherhood — motherhood is not just conception and traditional rearing, it’s so much more than that. The film is subtle and understated but it has such a strong message at its core. It also works to change our notions around adoption — it shouldn’t be shameful or secretive for any of the parties involved — it shouldn’t be taboo. “True Mothers” also stands out because it has a male lead who is tender and thoughtful, unlike a lot of films where the man doesn’t quite understand the plight of the mother. There are no true villains or “bad guys” in this film (except for the insignificant thug and his lackey) — even Hikari’s parents who although unforgiving and unreceptive to their daughter’s trauma and plight, aren’t villains — there has just been such sense of shame and ostracization for the parents of young, unwed mothers baked into the culture.
“True Mothers” is a slow burn, but it lingers in the best way possible and pays off in the end. It’s a touching and endearing gripping family drama that touches on lost youth and innocence, motherhood and societal notions surrounding it, loss and grief, kinship, and adoption. The film itself is also beautifully shot and uses light and color to signify hope and new beginnings. The acting by all parties is raw and authentic. While the intertwined stories are well written and directed in a way that captivates the viewer from beginning to end — although it has an almost 2 1/2 hour runtime, no time is wasted. Naomi Kawase does a wonderful job of effortlessly blending so many genres within this one film — teen romance, morality play, and family drama. In the end, “True Mothers” is an entrancing film that pulls you in to really empathize with all of the characters while leaving a lasting effect on you.