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)

Life: Untitled (タイトル、拒絶, Kana Yamada, 2019)

“Killing is easy. Revive me instead!” The heroine of Kana Yamada’s Life Untitled (タイトル、拒絶, Title: Kyozetsu) exclaims during a climactic argument, trying to find meaning in a life of ceaseless transaction. Adapting her own play, Yamada sets her tale of existential disappointment in an apartment used as an HQ for a group of call girls, each with their own problems but trying to live as best they can within the compromising environment of a patriarchal society which offers them little in the way of hope for a less depressing future. 

According to the agency’s top girl Riyu (Tomoko Nozaki) “everyone here is a failure of society”. Asking herself whether her painfully “ordinary” life was worth much of anything, Kano (Sairi Ito) resolved to become the hare rather than the tortoise, put on her recruit suit and submitted her CV to “Crazy Bunny”, a “delivery” company offering services only hinted at on the menu. Discovering that sex work was something she couldn’t handle, she managed to switch sides, becoming part of the management team taking “orders” and dispatching other women to various love hotels in the surrounding area, which means of course that she is privy to most of the interoffice drama even if she has little knowledge of these women’s external lives beyond that which they offer up freely as part of their work. 

The women who work at the agency, if you can call it that, are a varied bunch almost as if Yamashita, the thuggish boss running the operation on behalf of an older man (Denden), has made an effort to cater to all tastes. Three of the ladies gossip about ridiculous clients and their excuses for not wanting to use protection (including a fake medical certificate), while openly taking potshots at an older woman, Shiho (Reiko Kataoka), who has been selected as a substitute for the in demand Mahiru (Yuri Tsunematsu). Older women are cheaper they giggle, though the oldest of them, Atsuko (Aimi Satsukawa), is not so young herself and perhaps aware that she’s reaching a crisis point as she ages of out of the “most desirable” demographic. Kano thinks of Mahiru as the office’s hare in comparison to her patient tortoise, an embodiment of faceless desire wanted by all known by none. 

Mahiru too is well aware of her appeal and an expert in manipulating it. She loves money, she says, because she wants to use it to “buy someone’s life to burn the garbage inside me”, later vowing to “buy a person who can serve me for life”.  Carrying the burden of childhood trauma and sexualised from an early age, Mahiru is distrustful of relationships not based on transaction but perhaps craving something deeper while darkly yearning to burn the city of Tokyo to the ground. As it happens she is not the only one yearning to raze this society for the various ways in which it condemns women like her to a kind of underclass while men continue to live by a double standard that allows them to “buy” female bodies but resents the women who “sell” them. 

Another young woman, Kyoko (Kokoro Morita), finds this out to her cost in her difficult romance with the agency’s driver Ryota (Syunsuke Tanaka) with whom she slept for free while they were both drunk. She claims to understand him, that they are really both alike, soft people trying to look hard in order to survive in a cruel society. But he rejects her, asking who’d want to date a “hooker” like her, echoing Riyu’s words that she is “utterly worthless” by virtue of her life in sex work. Kyoko may be right and he likes her too, but he can’t let go of the idea that there is something “humiliating” about being romantically involved with a woman who has sex with men for money. 

Yamashita, meanwhile, is breaking all the rules of the trade by having sex with the girls he runs sometimes paying but perhaps sometimes not, wielding his position of power for sexual gratification before finally unmasking himself in describing the women as “garbage waiting to be thrown away”, disposable merchandise to be used and discarded once no longer useful to men like him. Kano might have been under no illusions as to Yamashita’s character, but the depths of his callousness surprise her. She’d developed a fondness for his underling, Hagio. (Hagio), who seemed sensitive and kind but turns out to have more than she’d expected in common with the girls while continuing to engage in the double standard, insisting that those who pay for sex are stupid, deluded for falling in love with those who only want money. 

Kano thought her “ordinary” life was “pathetic” and wanted to know if a “tortoise” like her could become the protagonist of her own story only to remain on the sidelines, a patient observer of these women’s lives while not quite as conflicted as you might expect her to be in her complicity with their exploitation. “A woman who ran away wouldn’t understand” Riyu fires back on being pushed for her refusal to entertain an unpleasant client, and perhaps it’s true, she wouldn’t because she works for the other side. She decides that perhaps it’s alright for her life not to have a “title”, meandering aimlessly without clear purpose but continuing all the same while the women take their particular kinds of revenge against a misogynistic and oppressive society ruled by male violence. Fully taking the play off the stage, Yamada depicts the lives of sex workers with a melancholy empathy quietly enraged at the society which forced them into lives they may not have asked for or wanted but discriminates against them simply for doing a job which is in essence like any other. “It’s not my fault” a high school girl instantly answers when questioned by a policeman, and you know, it really isn’t. 


Life: Untitled is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Ice Cream and the Sound of Raindrops (アイスと雨音, Daigo Matsui, 2017)

プリントThe youth movie has long held a special place in Japanese cinema but it would be fair to say that the fire has gone out of late, modern youth dramas are generally sad rather than angry. Daigo Matsui was in an enraged mood when he brought us Japanese Girls Never Die – a chronicle of female elision in an intensely misogynistic society. Now he brings his camera down a little to take a look at the incendiary play by boundary pushing British playwright Simon Stephens, Morning, through the eyes of real teenagers as their own hopes and dreams are suddenly pulled away from them by an act of “unfairness” which is perfectly typical of the treacherous adult world obsessed with rationality and not at all interested in their feelings.

Shot entirely in one take, Ice Cream and the Sound of Raindrops (アイスと雨音, Ice to Amaoto) masterfully condenses the one month rehearsal period of the play into a mere 70 minutes through dreamlike time segues, neatly swapping aspect ratios as the “play” takes over from “real life”. Stephens’ play, set at the end of summer – the same time as the play is being rehearsed and was scheduled to be performed, is a coming of age tale in which its small town heroine attempts to deal with the impending departure of her best friend for university by embracing the “freedoms” of youth only to discover that not all transgressions are cost free.

In a bid for “realism” the play’s director, played by Matsui himself, has cast real local teens by means of an open audition, but times are tough for the arts. With no “names” in the cast, ticket sales are slow. The producers have decided to pull the production and cut their losses ahead of time. The youngsters are obviously upset. This was, after all, their big chance and they’ve worked hard only to be told that all their efforts are worthless because they just don’t have “it”. No one cares about their feelings, no one cares about their wasted time, no one cares about them.

The actors and actresses play characters with their real names, slipping into and out of the theatrical world with little warning until the two begin to blend almost seamlessly and it becomes impossible to tell which level of theatricality best represents the teens’ inner lives. The “play” is also scored by a kind of Greek chorus in the form of a slightly older rapper/performance poet who offers a more direct commentary on the general feelings of hopelessness which have begun to plague the young cast who know they will be emerging into a world with few possibilities in which they will be expected to abandon their youthful dreams for an idea of conventional success which is destined to remain far out of their reach.

The cutesy title, Ice Cream and the Sound of Raindrops, hints at another kind of youth story – the melancholy journey into nostalgia as an older protagonist looks back on a beautiful summer many years ago spent with friends who perhaps are no longer around. Matsui’s film has some of that too, though his protagonists are younger. The teens almost eulogise themselves, telling their story as if it’s already over, walking like ghosts through halls of memory. They’re sad, but they’re angry too and they don’t understand why their platform has been so arbitrarily removed just as they were preparing their voices to be heard.

If youth wants the stage it will have to take it by force. Sick of being blamed, of being told that their failures are all lack of talent rather than luck, the kids make themselves heard even if they do so through a veil. Daigo Matsui gives them back their stage, enriching it with his own artifice in the thrillingly complex choreography of his oscillating one take conceit. Anchored by a standout performance from leading lady Kokoro Morita on whom many of the transitions depend, Ice Cream and the Sound of Raindrops returns the youth film to its previous intensity with a rebel yell from the disenfranchised next generation who once again find themselves at odds with the society their parents’ have created and see no place for themselves within it which accords with their own sense of personal integrity. 


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Original trailer (no subtitles)