Sign up for Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin and more

News, reviews and archive features every Friday, and information about our latest magazine once a month.

True Mothers is streaming on Curzon Home Cinema.

The biological impulses and moral responsibilities of parenthood – and, particularly, motherhood – have long proved fertile fodder for filmmakers across the genres, from horror and comedy to documentary and drama. And, as the English-language title of her latest film suggests, Japanese director Kawase Naomi (Still The Water, Radiance) has chosen to lean heavily into the emotional intricacies of what it really means to be a mother, particularly in a country where family duty and societal obligation are high value currency.

There are two such women in this narrative, which Kawase and co-writer Takahashi Izumi have adapted from the novel by mystery writer Tusijimura Mizuki. Satoko (Nagasaku Hiromi), the married adopted mother of five-year-old Asato (an utterly charming Sato Reo), and 18-year-old Hikari (Makita Aju), the boy’s biological mother who decides that she wants her child back – or else, money to leave the family alone.

After an opening sequence, in which Asato gets into trouble at nursery, establishes the desperate need Satoko feels to protect her son and the cultural hoops through which she has to jump to do so, Kawase embarks on a non-linear narrative, which moves from the present day through flashbacks regarding both sets of parents. And so we see how Satoro and husband Kiyokazu’s (Iura Arata) inability to conceive, and subsequent unsuccessful rounds of IVF, placed a strain on their marriage but ultimately brought them closer together, and how they came to adoption via a rural charity called Baby Baton, which supports (and hides away) young mothers with unwanted pregnancies.

True Mothers (2020)

In total contrast, we witness how Hikari – then just 14 – falls pregnant after losing her virginity to her first boyfriend, and the horrified reaction of her family, who separate her from her partner, accuse her of bringing shame on the family and ship her off to give birth – and give her baby up – at Baby Baton, which gives her an all-too-fleeting sense of place, and belonging. When she arrives in Tokyo to claim her child five years later, she is vastly changed; a sullen, aggressive young adult hiding behind a mane of matted hair. She is so different that Satoko and Kiyokazu struggle to believe it’s really the same woman – their concern that Hikari is not who she says she is, something that could fairly easily be cleared up, is a plot strand which takes some effort to swallow.

Yet, overall, the film rings with truth. Kawase’s own father left while she was a young child, leaving her to be raised by her grandmother, and themes of family and abandonment have informed a great deal of her work, from fictions like Suzaku to documentaries Birth/Mother and Chiri. They also echo loudly throughout True Mothers, and this biographical grounding brings a fundamental authenticity, which helps the film navigate through its more melodramatic and outlandish moments.

True Mothers (2020)

As do the performances, which deal in repressed emotions and stoic interactions befitting the inhabitants of a country which places an emphasis on the needs of the wider community rather than the individual. (Telling details, such as the fact that Baby Baton will only accept parents if one of them – usually the mother – agrees to give up work to care for the child full time, or the depth of community shame that goes hand-in-hand with both the failure to conceive and conceiving in the wrong circumstances are presented in a matter-of-fact style that speaks volumes about Japan’s societal hierarchy.)

Nagasaku is excellent as a woman staring into the abyss, desperately trying to retain control of a spiralling situation and faced with the prospect of losing everything she has ever wanted. Makita Aju, too, is committed in a demanding role, and embodies the vulnerability and desperation of a girl who finds herself lost and alone in a life that has been largely plotted out for her by others. Crucially, Kawase avoids any judgement or finger pointing, rounding out her characters’ experiences from a position of sympathy and warmth, and avoiding pitting one woman directly against the other.

Despite the cultural restraint that underpins the story, the film encourages its audience to feel the depth of the painful emotions at play here. The idea of an innocent young boy being stripped away from the only family he’s ever known – and the devastating impact that his loss is supposedly having on his birth mother –  is gut-wrenching stuff indeed, intensified by emotive visuals from DoP Tsukinaga Yuta (Kawase and Sakakibara Naoki also receive a cinematography credit). They daub the urban Tokyo landscape with hazy distilled light, thread in visual motifs from the natural world (water, tree branches) and hold the characters’ pain-filled faces in intense long shots that are almost too much to bear.

Further reading

Kawase Naomi: looking from the outside in

By Jasper Sharp

Kawase Naomi: looking from the outside in

Film of the week: Sweet Bean

By Jasper Sharp

Film of the week: Sweet Bean