TIFF 2020 review: True Mothers (Naomi Kawase)

Fiction is a part of who we are, to the point where if it is lacking, we miss it, because it is through fiction that we are able to input meaning into a reality that has none and that makes its own rules. Fiction is necessary because that is partially how we organize our own experiences and lives; for even time itself is often explained using a chronological order like the one we use in narratives. Everything has its own beginning, middle and end, even though that is not time itself, a man-made concept and an order we give to the ability of things to change. Here is where and why fiction makes itself so valuable: it not only offers tools to understand the world but also allows us to break it, reshape it and recreate it at our own pleasure. A blank page is infinite on its own. If we take a documentary film for example, it shows more than simply facts, documents, or real footage, but also narrative choices, just like fiction; and a fictional film on the other hand may tell us about our zeitgeist in a freer way than a documentary ever could. The boundaries between them are porous, for the concepts often intersect. Cinema, symbolically enough born alongside with modernity, is an art of archives that developed in a century obsessed with memoirs, autobiographies, and testimonies. Beyond that, and even more symbolically, cinema is now fully mature in a new century that is even more obsessed by the writing of the self with videos, pictures, and texts; now,  uninterruptedly, everything is available in a virtual cloud.

So, Naomi Kawase’s True Mothers, even though an adaptation from the homonymous Mizuki Tsujimura novel, or maybe precisely because of that, works as a perfect illustration of why Kawase’s filmography is an examplar for our obsessions both with what fiction tells us about ourselves and what we do. True Mothers allows Kawase to revisit themes close to her, and like Janus, the two-faced Greek god who sees beginnings and endings at the same time, see glimpses of change and the future yet to come by looking at her past.

True Mothers contains several small narratives that end up coming together and affecting one another, as the story jumps back and forth in time to show how history or our pasts are always casting a shadow over our lives in the present. We follow the steps of a loving couple first as parents, and only then as young lovers facing the inability to bear a child and thinking about adoption. There is also the small Asato, their happy and loved child; but a call from his kindergarten teacher saying that maybe Asato pushed a child to the ground may change the way his mother thinks about him. She is now questioning whether she really knows her own child, wondering who he looks like. Finally, there is also the young Hikari and her teenage love story that ended after an unwanted pregnancy, and how traditions, not the actual pregnancy, destroyed her plans.

As Kiyokazu Kurihara (Arata Iura) says, during a long dive into his past and the first years of his marriage to Satoko Kurihara (Hiromi Nagasaku): “Rocks are the Earth’s memories!” Thus it is not far-fetched to look at Naomi Kawase’s filmography as one made by fragments or memories of her own life, regardless if they are approached from a documentary or a narrative point of view. Just like the rocks, her films are memories. Furthermore, both Kiyokazu’s rocks and Kawase’s films tell stories about the past; however, they speak volumes because they are being revisited in the present, for the past tells us more about the now than it does about what is gone.

It is almost as if the director were revisiting one of her earliest works, the documentary Embracing, and its themes. Kawase may still be in Japan and speaking from Japan about Japanese culture, but time has passed and neither she nor the country remained the same in the more than twenty years that separate these works. In this sense True Mothers asks how much of the weight we carry on our shoulders comes from traditions we had no say in creating, and what traditions we are creating ourselves. Such a questioning not only forms the core of the film but is also the reason why Satoko and Kiyokazu’s marriage faces its first real bump in the road. Kiyokazu discovers that he cannot have a child as easily as other men and it is a problem that he cannot change. So he follows tradition and offers Satoko a divorce, for he cannot fulfill his role as a man. Their marriage was born out of love and Kawase shows this through small moments like dinner dates, travels, plans being made, everything photographed with so much light that the image feels warm. Again, tradition poses the problem, not Kiyokazu, not Satoko.

So Kawase uses this fictional marriage to question old traditions and deal with her autobiography. In a scene in which we see them talking for the first time about having a baby, both had not considered that before. Adoption and the very definition of a family only became a problem after they were confronted by the impossibility of forming one as their parents did, and their parents’ parents before them; should they just give up or keep insisting on more and more expensive and invasive medical procedures? They were fine without a kid, a possibility for modern couples, so what are they confronted with?

In short, there is no going back in time to a moment before Kiyokazu’s lab results. There is not a before to the moment when the possibility of forming a traditional family was taken away from them; just like in Embracing, in which we see a young Kawase discovering the truth about her parents, and her pursuit of a place in the world becoming the center of her narrative experiments. There was no way of not knowing anymore, so her art also became aware of the things she learned. It is through her cinema that Kawase tries to preserve her memories and keep on living, for it offers her a way of examining her own self in a gigantic mirror. I am because you are, and she is because her characters are.

True Mothers acts as a metonym of such a career, as its narrative departs from a problem connected to one’s family and origins, and goes on to become an ode to love as a force as strong as blood, that keeps affecting communities like lovers, friends, parents and their children. Like Kawase herself and her connection with the people she has immortalized in her films, like her grandmother, herself, and her son. To sum it all up, True Mothers seems to put obstacles in front of its characters in order to make them aware of their surroundings; making every problem presented a way to show that if their lives could be completely turned upside down by the smallest of things, the kindergarten incident for example, tradition itself can also be questioned and confronted even by the smallest acts of rebellion.