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Motherhood — in all its complexity — is at the heart of Naomi Kawase’s drama True Mothers, which tells the intertwined stories of Hikari Katakura (Aju Makita) and Satoko Kurihara (Hiromi Nagasaku). Their circumstances are very different, but they both fiercely love the same little boy, and that love ultimately helps each better understand the other.

Extended flashbacks reveal the main characters’ circumstances. Satoko and her husband Kiyokazu (Arata Iura) are unable to conceive a child, so they adopt their son Asato (Reo Sato) from Hikari, a 14-year-old girl who wasn’t able to keep him. Six years later, a young woman calls the Kuriharas saying that she is Hikari, and she wants her son back. We then see how Hikari came to this crossroads, from her all-consuming romance with the boy who claimed to love her but broke her heart when she ended up pregnant, to her time at Baby Baton, a home/agency that helps place babies for adoption, to her fury at the parents who treat her predicament with anger, shame, and disappointment rather than empathy and support.
Kawase is unhurried in unspooling Satoko and Hikari’s pasts. She takes time to sit with Kiyokazu’s painful dismay at being unable to father a child, with Satoko’s motherly concern over Asato’s behavior in kindergarten, with Hikari’s beautiful but doomed tryst with Asato’s biological father. The early scenes between the two of them, wearing their school uniforms and flirting while surrounded by golden light and cherry blossoms, almost feel like live-action anime.

As the movie builds toward its climactic scenes, it becomes very clear how important being a mother is to both main characters. For Satoko, adopting Asato a gave new depth and meaning to her relationship with Kiyozaku and brought her the joy of loving a child unconditionally. And for Hikari, giving birth to the living proof of her life-transforming passion was never something she wanted to feel ashamed of. Both are true mothers, and Kawase views both with compassion and understanding.– Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Nell Minow: Sensitive, delicate, and deeply respectful performances underscore the theme that when a child is born, a mother is born, too, whether delivered in labor or placed in her arms. Exquisite imagery echoes the emotions of the characters in this lyrical drama.

Susan Wloszczyna: As someone who was given up for adoption as an infant, True Mothers couldn’t help but touch my heart and souL. What most got to me about Japanese filmmaker Naomi Kawase’s touching drama about a well-off Tokyo couple with an adopted 5-year-old son were the two mothers at the center of the story. The message that matters? That maternal love can come in many forms. Read full review.

Pam Grady: Director Naomi Kawase intertwines stories of a small boy loved by two mothers, each feeling a strong bond with him and considering herself his “true” mother. A child herself, 14-year-old Hikari (Aju Makita) is too young to raise her child and her parents are too consumed with what the neighbors will think to consider keeping their grandchild. Infertile couple Sotoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Arata Iura) adopt the baby they name Asato (Reo Sato). But five years later, Hikari’s regrets lead her to seek out her son. Impeccably photographed, the drama is full of many scenes and cutaways that emphasize Japan’s natural beauty – images that speak to a calm serenity that was shattered for Hikari when she was pressured to give up her infant and for Sotoko when Hikari’s pain threatens her own happy family. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, the film is epic in length as Kawase attempts to give equal weight to both mothers’ stories – depicting not just Hikari’s young romance leading to the pregnancy and its aftermath, but also Sotoko and Kiyokazu’s struggles with infertility. It’s a long journey to get where the film is going, to two moms reckoning with one another. What makes it worth it are Makita and Nagasaku’s performances, devastating in their raw emotions.

Nikki Baughan: Naomi Kawase’s sensitive, thoughtful drama about a Japanese couple having to cope with the reappearance of their adopted son’s troubled birth mother draws its drama from the deep rooted emotions of parenthood. While it may take somewhat of a meandering route, and find its depth in its stunning and evocative visuals rather than any narrative revelation, strong performances from a committed cast help to mitigate some of the dramatic cliches.

Leslie Combemale First it must be said that both stars Hiromi Nagasaku (Satoko) and Aju Makita (Hikari) are expert at commanding the water works. It’s a good thing, since both of these characters have reason to cry. Though descriptions of True Mothers suggest the main meat of the story is about biological mother Hikari demanding her son back from adoptive parent Satoko, it’s more about the events and circumstances that lead one to giving the child up and the other to adopting, and also follows how their respective decisions impact their lives. Writer/director Naomi Kawase flips back and forth between past and present, with pacing that builds enough tension and emotional connection in viewers to keep them wishing for anything but what appears to be an inevitably disastrous outcome.

MaryAnn Johanson Japan may be even more culturally conservative than some Western nations — such as America and the UK — when it comes to teenaged pregnancy, adoption there seems to come with some serious taboos that seem almost unfathomable to me. But Naomi Kawase’s gently profound and deeply moving film finds a universality that transcends culture. Compassion overcomes stigma, and love binds… and sometimes doesn’t. These things are true for all of us. This is a beautiful tale, delicately observed and inspiringly wise.

Jennifer Merin Japanese filmmaker Naomi Kawase’s True Mothers is a profoundly poignant drama about a naive 14-year old high school girl who becomes pregnant and is emotionally abandonned by her very conventional parents and her immature, incapable boyfriend. The screenplay, adapted from Mizuki Tsujimora’s novel by Naomi Kawase and co-scripter Izumi Takahashi, follows the truly kind and conscientious teenager as she agrees to deliver her baby for adoption and then, six years later and overwhelmed by longing for her son, tries to reclaim him from his loving and devoted adoptive parents who’ve raised him as their own child. Kawase’s direction is compassionate and the performances from Aju Makita as the girl and Hiromi Nagasaku as the adoptive mother are absolutely heartbreaking. Compassion is a key theme in True Mothers and is an essential element in the resolution of the story. No spoilers — let’s just say that there is hope.

Sandie Angulo Chen: True Mothers explores the oft-debated issue of adoption, what’s in a child’s best interest, and the empathy necessary to understand both birth and adoptive mothers’ perspectives. Based on Mizuki Tsujimora’s novel, the Japanese film is adapted by writer-director Naomi Kawase and Izumi Takahashi. It features beautiful cinematography and a compelling character study of the two mothers who love little Asato — one conceived and gave birth to him, and the other raised him for 6 years. Aju Makita and Hiromi Nagasaku give nuanced and touching performances as the teen mother and the adoptive mother at the heart of the story. It’s a slow-burning and thought-provoking film that will stick with viewers and ask them to check their assumptions about what makes a mother.

Loren King What a lovely and heartfelt film from Japanese auteur Naomi Makita. True Mothers is a sensitive, unhurried story, rich with mothers and mother figures, that would have once been called a “woman’s picture.” But there are few histrionics; instead, it’s a quiet, sumptuously photographed film with a restrained, delicate score. Adapted from a novel by the mystery writer Mizuki Tsujimura, there’s plenty of drama in the premise about the caring, well-to-do adoptive parents Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Arata Iura) of an adorable five-year-old boy. The parents are suddenly confronted by the boy’s birth mother, teenager Hikaru (Aju Makita), who claims she wants the child back. The film then flashes back to Hikaru’s story, a familiar tale of ill-fated teen romance when she was 14. The acting, especially from Makita, is low-key yet powerful. Kawase takes the film is surprising directions but her narrative and her naturalistic, engrossing style never loses emotional focus. The story may be a familiar one, but this film lets it unfold with rare tenderness and mystery.

Marina Antunes Writer/director Naomi Kawase’s True Mothers is a beautiful and powerful film about love, sacrifice and the essence of motherhood through the exploration of the lives of two vastly different women: Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) a woman unable to have children who adopts a baby from Hikari (Aju Makita), a teenager forced by her parents to give up her parents. Kawase’s film beautifully explores the two women’s lives and the hardships that they have both endured and which eventually brings them together. We see Satoko and her husband’s struggle for a child, their difficult decision to give up on the idea of children only to stumble onto an alternative and later, we see Hikari’s romance fall apart and the tremendous suffering she endures after her life-altering decision; a is a delicate, beautifully nuanced story.

Liz Whittemore True Mothers taps into the raw intimacy of maternal guilt and unconditional love. Told through the eyes of two very different mothers, it is heartbreaking and overwhelming at times. The length should not scare you away, as the writing and performances hold you in your seat. The specific repetition of dialogue is key to the emotional core of this film, drawing a line between our two women and their child. The story also portrays the intricacies of adoption, something we don’t see enough of in film. The cinematography is beautiful and anchors happy memories in a screenplay that jumps in time. You’ll ride an emotional roller coaster thanks also to some phenomenal editing. True Mothers is nothing short of captivating.

Cate Marquis Poignant, sometimes heartbreaking, True Mothers looks at a Japanese adoption from the side of both the couple adopting and the young teen mother who gives up the child. This well-acted Japanese drama is more a moving exploration of two human stories than the usual custody struggle tale, although a crisis is sparked when someone claiming to be the birth mother reappears after five years, saying she wants back the son she gave up. Elements of mystery, thriller and tense human drama are balanced with two tales of love and heartbreak in Naomi Kawase’s remarkable, involving story.


Title: True Mothers

Directors: Naomi Kawase

Release Date: January 29, 2021

Running Time: 140 minutes

Language: Japanese with English subtitles

Screenwriter: Naomi Kawase and Izumi Takahashi

Distribution Company: Film Movement


Official Website

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna, Kathia Woods

Previous #MOTW Selections

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Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).