‘Genpin’/’Umareru (To Be Born)’

Two films explore childbirth in Japan

by Mark Schilling

The pain of childbirth, Genesis says, is God’s punishment for the original sin of womankind — if only Eve hadn’t given Adam that apple! But in Japan, traditionalists contend, it’s to be embraced, not lamented, since the deeper the agony, the deeper the motherly love. So hold the epidurals, please, we’re Japanese.

I don’t subscribe to either view, but as someone who has gone through the whole pregnancy-to-birth process twice as a father — that is, as a supporting player rather than the lead — I understand its huge significance, as well as its vast variations and sheer arbitrariness. Expectant mothers in Japan, where the infant mortality rate is one of the lowest in the world, seemingly have little to fear. But as two new documentaries show, anxieties can still be overwhelming, choices difficult and outcomes hard to cope with — or accept.

Naomi Kawase’s “Genpin” focuses on Tadashi Yoshimura, a guru of the natural childbirth movement, who has attended nearly 20,000 births since first opening his clinic in Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture in 1961. White-bearded, grandfatherly and sagely, Yoshimura presides over a thatched retreat in the woods where pregnant women do traditional chores (split firewood, polish floors), eat healthy traditional foods and otherwise return to the simpler lives of their rural forebears.

This may sound New Age-y and even cultish, but as Kawase reveals in interviews with Yoshimura and his patients, as well as in footage taken at the retreat and clinic, he is no back-to-the- Edo quack. His patients receive the usual checkups with the usual modern medical equipment and, if they have conditions that make natural childbirth risky, are referred to a nearby hospital. Yoshimura also presides over group meetings with parents-to-be, in which he listens attentively to their concerns and provides salty, tough-love advice (“Without a positive attitude, you can’t have a good delivery”).

Director Naomi Kawase
Run Time 92 minutes
Language Japanese
Umareru (To Be Born)
Director Tomo Goda
Run Time 104 minutes
Language Japanese

But the women who go the whole route with him, culminating in a candlelit delivery in the retreat, are glowing in their praise. Also, Kawase, who has won many awards for her documentary and fiction films, including a Cannes Grand Prix for her 2007 drama “Mogari no Mori” (“The Mourning Forest”), not only captures the retreat’s rustic beauty with a sure, delicate touch, but achieves a rare intimacy with her subjects, who reveal themselves beyond the usual limits of the talking-head Q&A. “Listening to people whose baby has died is really hard,” Yoshimura confesses. “How do you face something like that? There’s no clear answer.”

Tomo Goda’s “Umareru” (“To Be Born”) is a more conventional, commercial documentary that focuses on four couples, out of 40 whom Goda interviewed, while providing commentary by childbirth experts including Yoshimura. Unlike Kawase’s low-key, low-budget film, Goda’s features a splashy CG opening sequence, as well as tear-jerking animation and music.

He is nothing if not thorough, however, following his subjects over a period of months and recording them in not only sit-down interviews but also unguarded moments. While aiming to be upbeat, he captures scenes that are frankly painful to watch.

His first couple is in most ways average and unexceptional — the expecting father, a 31-year-old salaryman, has a quick smile and pleasant boyish manner, while the mother-to-be, also 31, looks the picture of glowing health when we first meet her, six months along. Then we learn that, as a girl, she was abused by her mother and that her husband, after witnessing the frigid state of his parents’ marriage, long had no interest in having a child. They both express anxieties about their qualifications as parents, something they share with millions of others in their situation — and not only today or in Japan.

The other couples are less audience stand-ins than putative objects of audience sympathy: One couple, in their early 40s, have a baby boy born with trisomy 18, a severe genetic disorder that, in 90 percent of cases, is fatal by the 1st birthday. Another, in their early 30s, is in mourning for a stillborn child, who died on the day of delivery. The last couple has no children, though the wife, 47, works at a fertility clinic and attempted fertility treatments for nine years before giving up.

As interviewees, they smile for the camera, while trying to accentuate the positive, but their stress and sorrow are also obvious. Watching the mother of the stillborn baby tenderly cradle its urn, covered in a cute knit jacket, I felt Goda was walking the line between documentation and exploitation. He doesn’t quite cross it — the couple’s story is on balance more inspiring than unsettling — but his choice of subjects feels less organic than box-office strategic.

That said, Goda captures images that go straight to the heart, minus any CG assists or editorial manipulation, from the innocent smile of the sick boy to the joy of the doubting mother when, after enduring a painful delivery, she finally sees the face of her first child.

It’s a touching moment to see and probably better to be in — but we’ll never know guys, will we?