True Mothers (朝が来る, Naomi Kawase, 2020)

Perhaps surprisingly and in contrast with many other developed nations child adoption remains relatively rare in Japan with most children who for whatever reason cannot be raised by their birth families cared for by institutions while the adoption of adults is unusually common usually for the purposes of securing an heir for the family name or business. This might be one reason that the “secret” of adoption is touted as a subject for blackmail in Naomi Kawase’s adaptation of the mystery novel by Mizuki Tsujimura True Mothers (Asa ga Kuru), though in this case it will prove to be a fruitless one as the adoptive parents have already made an effort towards transparency having explained to their son that he has another mother while their friends, family, and the boy’s school are all fully aware that he is not their blood relation. 

The Kuriharas, Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Arata Iura), are a settled, wealthy married couple who are shocked to discover that they are unable to conceive a child naturally because Kiyokazu is suffering from infertility. After a few unsuccessful rounds of painful treatment, they decide to give up and resign themselves to growing old together just the two of them, but after accidentally stumbling over a TV spot about an adoption service which focuses on finding loving homes for children rather than finding children for couples who want to adopt they begin to consider taking in a child who is not theirs by blood. As Kiyokazu puts it, it’s not that he’s obsessed with the idea of having a child, but they have the means and the inclination to raise one and could be of help when there are so many children in need of good homes. After enrolling in the programme, they adopt a little boy, Asato (Reo Sato), and somewhat unusually are encouraged to meet the birth mother, Hikari (Aju Makita), who they discover is a 14-year-old girl tearfully entrusting her baby to them along with a letter to give him when he’s old enough to understand. 

The central drama begins six years later as Asato prepares to leave kindergarten for primary school. A crisis occurs when Satoko is called in because a boy, Sora, has accused Asato of pushing him off the jungle gym. Thankfully, Sora is not seriously hurt though according to the school Asato admits he was there at the time but says he doesn’t remember pushing anyone. The teachers don’t seem to regard him as a violent or naughty boy and wonder if he might have accidentally knocked Sora off without realising, while Satoko for her part tries to deal with the matter rationally neither leaping to his defence without the full facts or prepared to apologise for something that might not have been his fault. The other mother, however, somewhat crassly asks for compensation, bringing up the fact that the family live in a nice apartment and can’t be short of a bob or two. Stunned, Satoko does not respond while the other mother instructs her son not to play with Asato anymore. It’s around this time that she starts receiving anonymous calls that eventually turn out to be from a young woman claiming to be Hikari who first petitions to get her son back and then like Sora’s mother asks for monetary compensation. Only on meeting her the young woman seems completely different from the heartbroken teen they met six years’ previously and Satoko can’t bring herself to belief it’s really her, but if it isn’t who is she and what does she want?

Less a tug of love drama between an adoptive and a birth mother as in the recent After the Sunset, True Mothers places its most important clue in the title in that there need not be a monopoly on motherhood. A woman brought out at the adoption agency open day reveals that she’s explained to her son that he has three mothers, herself, his birth mother, and Asami (Miyoko Asada), the woman who runs “Baby Baton”. Asami encourages her prospective parents to explain to the children the circumstances of their birth before they enter primary school, keen both that they avoid the trauma of suddenly discovering the truth and that the birth mother not be “erased” from the child’s life and history. 

Though founded in love and with the best of intentions, Baby Baton also has its regressive sides in reinforcing conservative social norms, open only to heterosexual couples who’ve been married over three years (Japan does not yet have marriage equality or permit same sex couples to adopt) and requiring one parent, though it does not specify which, to give up their career and become a full-time parent. Its residential requirement is also not a million miles away from a home for unwed mothers hidden away on a remote island near Hiroshima which seems to be the way it is used and viewed by Hikari’s parents who force her to give up the baby more out of shame than practicality, telling people that she’s in hospital recovering from pneumonia. Nevertheless it’s at Baby Baton that Hikari finally finds acceptance and a sense of family, feeling rejected by the birth parents who have sent her away rather than embracing or supporting her in the depths of her emotional difficulty. Asami was there for her when no one else was, later explaining that unable to have children herself she founded Baby Baton as means of helping other women who found themselves in difficulty in the hope of “making sure all children are happy”. 

Like Hikari many of the other women at Baby Baton are there because of a corrupted connection with their own maternal figures, often rejected or abandoned many of them having participated in sex work as a means of survival. Reminiscent of her documentary capture of residents of the old persons’ home in The Mourning Forest or the former leper colony in Sweet Bean, Kawase films the scenes at Baby Baton with naturalistic realism as one young woman celebrates her 20th birthday sadly wondering if any one will ever celebrate her birthday again. A testament to female solidarity, the home presents itself as a kind of womb bathed in golden light and protected by a ring of water providing a refuge for often very young women at a time of intense vulnerability until they are eventually rebirthed by the surrogate maternal figure of Asami. 

The film’s Japanese title “Morning Will Come” as echoed in the song which plays frequently throughout hints at an eventual fated reunion while also pointing towards Asato the first character of whose name literally means “morning”, lending an ironic quality to its English counterpart which invites the conclusion that there are somehow false mothers while simultaneously evoking a sense of a great confluence of maternity in the unselfishness of maternal love. Immersed in a deep well of empathy, Kawase’s bittersweet drama is infinitely kind if not without its moments of darkness and pain resolute in its sense of fairness and the insistence there’s love enough to go around if only you’re brave enough to share it.


True Mothers streams in the UK from 16th April exclusively via Curzon Home Cinema.

UK trailer (English subtitles)

#HandballStrive (#ハンド全力, Daigo Matsui, 2020)

“Reach. Connect. Just like we used to” runs a vaguely inspirational slogan oft repeated in Daigo Matsui’s anti-defeatism teen drama #HandballStrive (#ハンド全力, #HandoZenryoku). We’ve never been so so “connected”, but as someone later puts it “people are selfish. They say whatever they like online” and the false affirmation of internet likes is a poor substitute for the earnest authenticity of those who know they’re giving their all for something they believe in. That’s a lesson that proves hard to learn for the teenage Masao (Seishiro Kato) who is, like many young men, filled with fear for the future and desperate to find some kind of control in world of constant uncertainty. 

In addition to the normal adolescent anxieties, Masao finds himself acutely burdened by a sense of despair as a survivor of the 2016 Kumamoto earthquake which destroyed his home, leaving him temporarily displaced. Thankfully, it seems his entire family survived, but three years on are still living in cramped temporary accommodation. In search of a sense of control, Masao is entirely wedded to his smartphone and an Instagram addict. Finding out that an old middle school buddy, Taichi (Shouma Kai), who moved away after the earthquake is now a top player on his high school handball team, a sport Masao has long given up, sends him looking back over old photos. Posting one on his feed proves unexpectedly popular, partly because it shows the temporary housing complex in the background and provokes sympathy in those who thought the photo was recent. Hoping to continue their Instagram high, Masao and his friend Okamoto (Kotaro Daigo) decide to attach an inspirational hashtag #HandballStrive and align themselves with the campaign to rebuild the area as residents of Kumamoto, only Masao has already posted all of his other handball photos so they need to get creative. 

It’s the creative part that eventually becomes a problem as the #HandballStrive phenomenon spirals out of control. Masao’s fond reminiscence about the sport was partly sparked by a pretty girl, Nanao (Haruka Imou), who plays on the high school team, but he really had no intention of ever stepping back on a court again until cornered by an intense young man, Shimada (Himi Sato), who is the de facto captain of the boys’ team by virtue of being its only remaining member. The boys find themselves press-ganged into joining too, but only ever halfheartedly, never intending to play for real only as a means of staging more photos to post online. 

As Shimada puts it, sometimes your heart connects the pass without you even looking. Masao finds himself lost, unable to fill in his career survey because he has no idea what it is he wants to do with his life and thinking about the future frightens him, in part because he is still intensely traumatised by the aftermath of the earthquake. What use is making plans when something terrifyingly unexpected can happen at any moment? He feels he has no control, and so he over invests in his phoney Instagram success as something stage managed and calculated, totally under his own authority. Masao looks around him for answers but isn’t convinced by what he sees, learning from his brother’s (Taiga Nakano) bubbly girlfriend (Mirai Shida) that he once dreamed of becoming a rock star to change the world through song but after the earthquake gave up on his dreams for the rewards of the practical, becoming a funeral director which is aside from anything else a steady job with relatively little competition. 

Masao gave up on his dream too in that he quit playing handball, or in essence retired from everything. Taichi carried on playing, which is to say that he carried on living and defiantly so, which may partly be the reason the two boys seem to have lost touch. “You always run away from things” an earnest player on the girls team taunts him, ramming home that they at least are serious even if they fail while he is so filled with insecurity that he never even tries. What he realises is that life is the ultimate team sport. “Things are out of control”, Taichi laments, “so let’s change them together” Okamoto suggests. To overcome his anxiety, Masao learns to focus not on the things he can’t control, like earthquakes, but on the things he can, what he can do right now to make a difference, finding meaning in the desire to strive for something even if it’s only handball glory. Perfectly in tune with his teenage protagonists, Matsui takes a standard shonen sports manga narrative and turns it into a manifesto for escaping existential despair as his conflicted heroes learn to connect, just like they used to, by reaching out to each other for support in an increasingly uncertain world.


#HandballStrive is available to stream worldwide until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Third Murder (三度目の殺人, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2017)

Third Murder posterJapanese cinema has often put the justice and legal system on trial and found it wanting. From Yoji Yamada’s Flag in the Mist in which a “selfish” lawyer contributes to the death of an innocent man, to Yoshitaro Nomura’s spiralling, feverish The Incident, Yoshimitsu Morita’s Kafka-esque Keiho, Gen Takahashi’s pointed Court of Zeus, and Masayuki Suo’s comparatively more straightforward I Just Didn’t Do It, the entire justice system takes on an almost spiritual quality of absurdity, tormenting the accused for the sake of a pantomime of justice, little caring for his or her guilt or innocence and intent only on propping up its own sense of absolute authority.

Like Yoji Yamada in Flag in the Mist, The Third Murder (三度目の殺人, Sandome no Satsujin) finds director Hirokazu Koreeda in unfamiliar territory though, at heart, it all comes back to family. A top lawyer, Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama), currently in the middle of a divorce, is asked to represent a man who has freely confessed to murder. As the son of the original judge who sentenced the accused, Misumi (Koji Yakusho), to the 30 year sentence he had not long been released from before (allegedly) committing the crime, Shigemori feels a responsibility to act but is frustrated by his client’s constantly shifting story. Nothing he says adds up, and every new angle Shigemori uncovers provokes only more doubt as to the true nature of the case at hand.

Shigemori, somewhat condescendingly, criticises the junior lawyer in the office for his naivety in wanting to to investigate the crime. Understanding and empathy are “unnecessary” in defending a client. The business of a lawyer, on either side, is to assess the evidence at hand, create an argument that withstands scrutiny, and eventually triumph in debating one’s opponent. In the face of the law, the “truth” is an irrelevance.

Shigemori’s cynicism is however rocked by the eerie presence of Misumi who seems to carry with him a kind of deepening emptiness. Misumi has already served 30 years in prison for the murder of two loansharks, the theft of their money, and an act of arson committed on their property to disguise the crime. Shigemori’s father, now a much older man, laments his youthful naivety in handing down a compassionate judgement which took into account the mitigating circumstances – Misumi’s troubled childhood, his poverty, the dire economic situation in which the closure of the local mines had led to mass unemployment and provided fertile ground for unscrupulous money lenders, and a series of personal tragedies which may have unbalanced his mind, but now he thinks some people are just bad and Misumi’s third murder is, in a sense, also his responsibility in allowing him the freedom to commit it.

Yet, there is also a doubt that Misumi’s first crimes are even his. We are told that, like the current case, Misumi couldn’t stick to one story – a common phenomenon with those who confess under duress, saying yes to everything in order to make the questioning stop but later forgetting what exactly they confessed to. Misumi later says he confessed only because he was told that confessing was the only way to avoid the death penalty which, ironically enough, is what he now faces. He also claims he was intimidated by the (admittedly stern) prosecutors, and when it looks as if a new trial may be necessary, the judge opts for the most “judicially economical” solution to incorporate the new demands into the current trial for reasons which the lawyers attribute to his personal need to get the case off his docket in good time so as not to muddy his own reputation. Japan’s 99% conviction rate is less an endorsement of judicial efficiency than a worrying indictment of the legal process in which trials are mere formalities held for show, a pantomime intended to reinforce an idea of “justice” which does not quite exist.

The weight of justice itself is called into question. We learn that the victim was guilty of several crimes, some of them more forgivable than others. Yet is his death “justice” or “murder”, was he “killed” or was the act one of “salvation” for his victims? There are no easy answers and the uncomfortable fact remains that one kind of justice may not necessarily be any different from another. Misumi remains a cypher, his motives for committing the crime(s) (if he even did commit them at all) unclear yet there is also something in him that suggests he is merely a reflection of ourselves, a projection of our own primal need to see justice done that our civil selves have tried and failed to codify into a universally recognised system of fairness known as law. Then again perhaps all we really want is a story we can understand and empathise with, perhaps we don’t want justice at all – we want narrative, a strategy for defence against the cruel and arbitrary charges of an unforgiving world. Shigemori stands at a crossroads, cleansed of his cynicism but unsure what to replace it with, as, perhaps, as we.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of Arrow Academy.

International trailer (English subtitles)