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)

One Night (ひとよ, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2019)

“You can live however you want, you’re totally free. You can be anything” a woman tells her children, believing she is freeing them from a cycle of violence and oppression but unwittingly consigning them to another kind of cage in Kazuya Shiraishi’s raw family drama One Night (ひとよ, Hitoyo). Adapting the stage play by Yuko Kuwabara, Shiraishi is the latest in a long line of directors asking questions about the true nature of family, taking the hahamono or “mother movie” in a new direction but ultimately finding faith at least in the concept as the family unit finally begins to repair itself in a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness. 

The “one night” of the title is that of 23rd May, 2004 on which wife and mother Koharu (Yuko Tanaka) backs over her relentlessly abusive husband in one of the taxis operated by their company. At some point, even if only perhaps in those few moments sitting at the steering wheel, Koharu appears to have given this a great deal of thought. Calmly walking back into her familial home where her three children are each sporting prominent facial wounds from a recent beating, she hands each of them a handmade onigiri and explains that she has just killed their father. Planning to hand herself in she reassures them that an uncle will look after them and the company so they’ve no need to worry. She has no idea how long she’ll be in prison for, but cautions that she may not return for 15 years hoping that by then the stigma will have passed. On her way out, she pauses to tell them that she is proud of what she’s done, saving them from their father’s authoritarian abuse and urging them to be free to live their lives in whichever way they choose. 

15 years later, however, the children find themselves burdened by her words. Yuji (Takeru Satoh) who dreamed of being a novelist has become a cynical journalist working for a pornographic magazine. Daiki (Ryohei Suzuki) who has a stammer and wanted to be a mechanic has never been able to hold down a steady job and is on the brink of divorce after showing signs of becoming abusive himself, while Sonoko (Mayu Matsuoka) who wanted to be a hairdresser is now working as a bar hostess drinking herself into oblivion. Living with the legacy of that one night, none of them has been able to live freely or to achieve their dreams but has remained arrested in some way waiting for Koharu’s return. 

While in her mind she freed them, the children find themselves dealing with the secondary sense of abandonment in her decision to exile herself from their lives, essentially leaving them to deal with the fallout of her “crime” all alone. Not only are they now orphaned, they also have to live with the stigma of being related to a notorious murderess with all of the peculiar burdens that entails in Japanese society from harassment and bullying to reduced employment opportunities and an internalised shame. Meanwhile, their mother’s words ring in their ears, urging them to be free, to be who they wanted to be and achieve their dreams, but they find themselves paralysed by the pressure to live up to the sacrifice Koharu has made on their behalf. While Sonoko is the most sympathetic, the boys are consumed by resentment. Koharu sees her 15 years of wandering as an exile undertaken as a kind of atonement and intended to keep the children safe from further social stigma, but her sons feel only the abandonment. 

Still, “mom’s still mom. It’s we who’ve got to change” Daiki tries to convince his brother, “we’re not kids anymore” he later adds as they recreate a thwarted teenage attempt to save their mother but in a very real sense they are. The problem in Daiki’s marriage turns out be rooted in insecurity, a failure of intimacy that saw him reluctant to let his wife and daughter into his traumatic past which finally expressed itself in violence. Meanwhile another driver at the taxi firm finds himself in a parallel struggle as he processes his own troubled relationship with an estranged teenage son and comes to realise his sins are indeed being visited on him despite his best efforts to prevent it. He sympathises with Koharu against the “ungrateful” children who, like the those of the classic hahamono, fail to understand the quality of their parent’s love as expressed in the sacrifices they have made on their behalf. Yet it’s Yuji who had branded his family a mere simulacrum who eventually fights hardest to save it, paving the way for a reconciliation as they finally bring closure to the events of 15 years previously and begin to move on with the rest of their lives. A raw and painful examination of familial trauma, Shiraishi’s bruising drama eventually allows the family to reclaim the night, repairing their fracturing bonds in sharing their emotional burdens freed at last from the oppressive legacies of abuse and resentment.


One Night streams in the US via the Smart Cinema app on Sept. 6 & 11 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Lost Paradise in Tokyo (ロストパラダイス・イン・トーキョー, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2010)

lost paradise in Tokyo posterHappiness seems an elusive concept for a group of three Tokyoites each chasing unattainable dreams of freedom in a constraining society. The debut feature from Kazuya Shiraishi, Lost Paradise in Tokyo (ロストパラダイス・イン・トーキョー) is much more forgiving of its central trio than many an indie foray into the forlorn hopes of modern youth but neither does it deny the difficulty of living in such frustrating circumstances.

Mikio (Katsuya Kobayashi) has a soul crushing job as a telephone real estate salesman at which he’s not particularly good and is often subject to trite rebukes from a patronising boss who breaks off from the morning mantra to enquire how the funeral went for Mikio’s recently deceased father only to then remark that Mikio’s dad won’t be able to rest in peace unless Mikio bucks up at work. At home, Mikio has just become the sole carer for his older brother, Saneo (Takaki Uda), who has severe learning difficulties and has been kept a virtual prisoner at home for the last few years. Saneo, however, is still a middle-aged man with a middle-aged man’s desires and so Mikio decides to hire a prostitute to help meet his sexual needs.

“Morin-chan” (Chika Uchida) as she lists herself, is also an aspiring “underground idol” known as Fala who makes ends meet through sex work. Depite Mikio’s distaste for the arrangement, Morin is a good companion to Saneo, calming him down and helping to look after him while Mikio is at work. In her life as Fala, Morin is also the subject of a documentary about underground idols and when the documentarians stumble over her double life they make her a surprising offer – allow herself to be filmed and they will give her a vast amount of money which might enable her to achieve her dream of buying a paradise island.

Mikio is doing the best he can but is as guilty of societal stigma relating to the disabled as anyone else and his guilt in feeling this way about his own brother coupled with the resentment of being obliged to care for him has left him an angry, frustrated man. Asked at work if he has any siblings Mikio lies and says he’s an only child, denying his brother’s existence rather than risk being associated with disability. At home he can’t deny him but neither can he be around to keep an eye on him all day and so there have been times when he’s had to literally (rather than metaphorically) lock his brother away.

Longing for freedom, Mikio wants out of his stressful, soul destroying job and the responsibility of caring for his brother while Morin is trapped in the world of “underground idols” who are still subject to the same constraints as the big studio stars only without the fame, money, or opportunities. As one of the documentarians points out, Morin (or Fala) is really a little old for the underground idol scene, her days limited and dreams of mainstream success probably unattainable. For as long as she can remember she’s dreamed of a paradise “island” where she can she live freely away from social constraints and other people’s disapproval.

Mikio had got used to thinking of his brother as a simple creature whose life consisted of needs and satisfactions but the entry of Morin into their lives forces him to consider what it is that his brother might regard as “happiness” and if such a thing can ever exist for him. Morin wants the three of them to go her paradise island where Saneo can live his life freely away from the unforgiving eyes of society but unbeknownst to any of them they may have already found a kind of paradise without realising.

Later Mikio admits that he and his father were content to lock Saneo away because they feared they wouldn’t understand him. Once Saneo hurt someone, not deliberately, but through being unable to express himself in the normal way and not fully understanding that his actions would cause someone else pain. Rather than deal with the problem, Mikio’s father decided to hide his son away – less to protect Saneo from himself, than in wanting to avoid the stigma resulting from his existence. Saneo, however, may not be able to express himself in ways that others will understand but is still his own person with his own hopes and ideas as his final actions demonstrate. Only once each has come to a true understanding of themselves and an abandonment of fantasy can there be a hope of forward motion, finally rediscovering the “lost paradise” that the city afforded them but they were too blind to see.


Available to stream in most territories via FilmDoo.

Original trailer (English subtitles)