What does it mean to be a woman in the modern society? Two 20-somethings are confronted by just that question when one of them suddenly reveals that she is expecting a baby and plans to raise it alone but would be very grateful for the other’s support. Hajime Tsuda’s Daughters (ドーターズ) is the latest in a long line to ask a few questions about the nature of the modern family but does so through the eyes of these typical young women who find themselves perhaps a little more old-fashioned than they’d assumed as they determine to flout patriarchal norms and raise a child together as a platonic unit. 

High school friends Koharu (Ayaka Miyoshi) and Ayano (Junko Abe) have been living together in a tastefully decorated Tokyo flat for the past few years. Ayano works at a fashion magazine, and Koharu in events planning and installations. They have an active social life and enjoy the benefits of living in a big, vibrant city. All of that must necessarily change, however, when Ayano discovers she is pregnant after a meaningless one night stand with an old friend (Yuki Ito) who is about to accept a transfer abroad and had just been joking about reluctantly having to marry his girlfriend who wants to come with him. After thinking it over, Ayano decides she wants to have the baby without saying anything to the father but her decision comes as a shock to Koharu who is at once stunned by her friend’s sudden transition into adulthood. 

These really are just gals being pals, but there is perhaps something of repressed desire in Koharu’s lingering looks whether it’s actually Ayano that she wants or merely lamenting the imminent end of their lives as young women on the town not to mention a closeness she now fears will be diluted rather than perhaps deepened with the introduction of a third party in their relationship. For her this sudden end to the Tokyo high life may have arrived earlier than she expected, but it would have arrived soon enough in any case. Wanting to support her friend she remains conflicted and mildly resentful, partly it seems of the unnamed father but also despite herself carrying outdated ideas of social propriety firstly trying to dissuade Ayano from having the baby believing that raising it as a single-mother will be impossible. 

Ayano is told something similar by her father (Shingo Tsurumi) on a visit home, though he later comes round after a few stern words from her cheerful grandmother (Hisako Okata) who couldn’t be happier, insisting that children are a blessing however they arrive. At work, however, despite being surrounded by other women, she faces a series of similar discouragements, reminded that she can’t expect to return to the same position after giving birth because her priorities will have changed. She can no longer give “everything” to the company, she will need additional time off if her childcare falls through or her child is ill. She may need to leave early or come in late for the school run. Her boss does not intend this as a criticism but an acceptance of what it means to be a mother and an insistence a choice is being made, leaning into patriarchal, capitalist ideas of the employment contract which values an employee most for their availability rather their productivity or talent.  

Both women, meanwhile, harbour a lingering sense of social stigma when it comes to the subject of unmarried mothers. Koharu angrily fires the English phrase at her friend as if to discredit her decision, while Ayano finds herself earnestly asking her doctor (who appears to have seen through her ruse of introducing Koharu as her “sister”) if she sees a lot of women like her, the compassionate, supportive medical practitioner assuring her that 25% of women giving birth in Tokyo are single and though she has no idea what happened to them afterwards as a woman who has never has a child she is herself envious. Having agreed to raise the child together, Koharu still has her doubts that such an arrangement can really work, unsure of herself until heading off on a sulky solo holiday to the island paradise of Okinawa where she meets a woman (Tomoka Kurotani) who moved halfway across the country to raise her son alone. She seems happy and her son seems to have turned out just fine. 

As in Ayano’s rural hometown with its wide-open vistas, the relaxed Okinawan attitude perhaps bears out the maxim that Tokyo is often more conservative than provincial Japan, Ayano even slightly worried that having a caesarean section doesn’t really count and she’d be failing at motherhood before even really starting. In a symbolic act of transition the two women mirror the construction of a bunkbed on their moving in with the completion of the baby’s cot, built together with “faith in the future in this ephemeral city”. Stylistically innovative, filled with poetic monologues, and moving to the rhythm of a zeitgeisty pop score, Tsuda ends with the deceptively traditional as the two women find themselves confronted with a local festival but find in it strength and an acceptance that it is really OK as they embark on a new phase of their life as a family as entitled to the name as any other. 


International trailer (English subtitles)

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