Naomi Kawase’s melodramatic adaptation of a novel by Mizuki Tsujimura, is directed with finesse, but relies too heavily on PSA-style storytelling that rather explores the past than the present with situations that miss their mark in trying to establish a real emotional force.

After trying to conceive for a while, a Japanese couple undergo tests. Kiyokazu (Arata Iura) gets diagnosed with aspermia and thus they settle for a life without children. But when a tv-report for a nonprofit adoption agency, Baby Baton, catches their attention, they decide to check it out. Adoption wasn’t really on their radar, but once there, they meet with an adolescent mother, who’s unfit to take care of her baby, Asato. The wealthy Satoko and Kiyokazu, bring their adoptive child home and start living their life as a happy family. Six years later, Asato’s biological mother comes looking for him.

True Mothers obviously focuses on the mothers in this story – the innocent young woman who doesn’t want to be erased from her child’s life, Hikari (Aju Makita), and the adoptive mother Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku). Kawase explores both these women’s timelines, up to the point of their meeting six years after Asato’s birth. The film starts of with Satoko’s trust being challenged, due to an incident at her son’s school. Big Little Lies comparisons aren’t too much of a stretch, when a neighbour starts threatening her. Desperately in need for the truth, Satoko starts daydreaming about her life before Asato joined the family and how the adoption process fueled her now undying love as a mother.

When she gets contacted by a woman, claiming to be Asato’s mother, they decide to meet up. Kiyokazu denies the identity of the woman sitting across from him, and the rest of the film explores Hikari’s intense romance with a boy from school and the crumbling relationship with her family. Not only is there a ton of exposition that could’ve been cut from the final version, Kawase just spends too much time building up to the film’s conclusion, without really digging deeper into her character’s motivations.

Both Aju Makita and Hiromi Nagasaku do a perfectly fine job at portraying these heart-aching mothers. Where Satoko feels the desperate need to care for someone, Hikari is the total opposite, wishing someone would hold her and stop abusing her goodwill. This girl really can’t catch a break. The film is well-directed, but just like the score, the overly dramatic tone of the story becomes monotonous, making it difficult to hold your attention.

True Mothers is a one-note melodrama, clearly giving the benefit of the doubt to the middle-class mother, and kicking the lower-class young girl when she’s already down. The traumatic experiences Hikari has to endure change her into a completely different person, unrecognizable to those who grew up with her. This gives Aju Makita a little more of an edge in showcasing her ability to act.

The film doesn’t really make you want to start a family – it paints too much of a traumatic picture of parenthood. The conclusion doesn’t seem deserved, with its overly saccharine way of combining both worlds. A flawed look at the struggles of motherhood.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

TIFF20 Review – ‘True Mothers’

Reviewed online (as part of Toronto International Film Festival), September 19, 2020. Rating: TBC. Running time: 140 min.

PRODUCTION: A Kino Films International Sales release of a Kazumo, Kino Films, Kinoshita Group, Kumie production. Producer: Yumiko Takebe. Executive producer: Naoya Kinoshita.

CREW: Director: Naomi Kawase. Screenplay: Naomi Kawase, Izumi Takahashi. Editing: Tina Baz, Yoichi Shibuya. Cinematography: Yuta Tsukinaga, Naoki Sakakibara.

CAST: Hiromi Nagasaku, Arata Iura, Aju Makita, Miyoko Asada.

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