Throughout her career, filmmaker Naomi Kawase has seldom strayed far from the subject she knows best: herself. Her earliest films were intimate documentaries about her family, shot on 8mm film. When she branched out into drama, the stories — usually set in her native Nara Prefecture — were often tightly entwined with her own.
That’s also the case with her latest movie, “True Mothers.” Based on a hit novel by Mizuki Tsujimura, it’s a drama that looks at the issue of adoption from two sides, telling the parallel stories of a middle-aged couple with an adopted son, and a birth mother trying to get her child back.
When I meet Kawase for an early lunch at a macrobiotic cafe in Tokyo, I begin by telling her that my cousin in the U.K. recently adopted a child himself.
“Well, let me start by saying that I was adopted, too,” she says. “This isn’t someone else’s affair. There’s a portion of myself contained in this film.”
Kawase was adopted as a young child by her great-aunt and great-uncle, after her parents divorced and her mother was unable to take proper care of her.
When she enrolled at Osaka School of Photography, she started using a film camera to probe into her family history. Her 1992 documentary “Embracing” followed her efforts to track down her biological father, while 1994’s “Katatsumori” explored her relationship with her great-aunt, whom she always knew as “grandma.”
“They were already in their 50s when they adopted me, which I think showed amazing resolve,” she says. “They weren’t able to give me money or a comfortable lifestyle, but I think they gave me something else.”
In “True Mothers,” a well-to-do couple, Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) and Kiyokazu (Arata Iura), decide to adopt a son after they are unable to conceive a child on their own. Six years later, they are contacted by a woman claiming to be the boy’s birth mother, demanding they give him back.
The film offers a detailed insight into the adoption process, which may be unfamiliar to many viewers in Japan. Only around 500 children are legally adopted each year in the country, though the government has recently been pushing to increase that number.
“I wouldn’t go so far as saying that adoption is ‘normal’ in Western countries, but people are open-minded,” says Kawase. “It isn’t a big deal to say you were adopted, but in Japan it’s still tricky — especially in rural areas, where you hear of people being forced to divorce because they couldn’t get pregnant.”
“They need to know that adoption is also an option,” she continues. “There may be children who are happier being raised by parents who aren’t their birth mothers or fathers.”
Kawase’s portrayal of the issue in “True Mothers” sometimes blurs the line between documentary and fiction. After conducting extensive interviews for background research, she decided to cast some of the people she had spoken to in the film. In a scene where Satoko and Kiyokazu attend a session for prospective adoptive parents, the others in the audience are people who’ve been through the process in real life.
The film also offers a wrenching portrait of teen pregnancy, following a 14-year-old schoolgirl, Hikari (Aju Makita), who gets pregnant before she has even had her first period. During Hikari’s stay at a home for expectant mothers, the film switches into verite mode, with characters giving interviews directly to the camera. Kawase shot these scenes herself, capturing moments of unforced intimacy.
“That was one of the strong points of my early work, when I was shooting private documentaries on 8mm, and I filmed it in the same fashion,” she says. “I wanted to try something different with the structure (in “True Mothers”). It’s a documentary in the middle of a drama, but what it depicts is fiction rather than real life.”
Kawase is able to achieve these effects thanks to her immersive approach to filmmaking. Her cast spent weeks living in character: Makita enrolled at a junior high school in Nara and joined the table tennis club, while Nagasaku and Iura moved into a high-rise apartment on the Tokyo waterfront.
Working in this way allowed the director to capture some exceptional performances. “True Mothers” is likely to prove a break-out role for Makita, who has already appeared in a number of films by Hirokazu Kore-eda. (“There are plenty of actresses who can look pretty and cry on demand, but that’s not what she’s about: She has something deeper,” says Kawase.)
However, not everyone is eager — or able — to sign up for such an involved process. Kawase says she likes actors who are prepared to turn up for a shoot without any entourage, or a talent agency getting in the way.
“I think it would be better for actors in Japan to focus on one shoot at a time,” she says. “When people get popular, their agencies cram their schedule so they’re ‘surfing’ (from one project to the next). An actor might be playing a murderer one day and a nice dad the following day, which is just crazy.”
One of the reasons she has worked repeatedly with actors such as Masatoshi Nagase and Tatsuya Fuji, she says, is because they run their own agencies, giving them more flexibility: “If they’re working on a film, they’ll clear their schedule for it.”
It may be easier for Kawase to make such demands nowadays. Though her career got a major boost when she won the Camera d’Or for best debut feature at Cannes Film Festival with “Suzaku” in 1997, for years she was viewed as an art-house auteur, more interested in pleasing sophisticated European audiences than viewers back home.
The Cannes regular made an unexpected turn in 2015 with “Sweet Bean,” a melodrama about an elderly leprosy survivor who briefly revives the fortunes of a dorayaki pancake shop. Some found it delightful, others downright cloying. As film critic Mark Schilling wryly observed in The Japan Times at the time, it was a “real Japanese film.”
“People are going to be more interested in watching something about bean paste and dorayaki than about Hansen’s disease (leprosy),” Kawase says. “I realize that’s what everyone wants: They don’t want to learn too much; they’d rather have something tasty to eat. But I want to make films that are like going out for a delicious meal and learning something really important in the process.”
Although she stumbled with 2018’s “Vision,” a Juliette Binoche vehicle that misfired badly (“Nobody got it,” she says with a laugh), her latest movie looks likely to nudge Kawase a little closer to mainstream acceptance. Her next project: directing the official film for the Tokyo Olympics.
“True Mothers” was originally supposed to have its world premiere at Cannes, and eventually debuted at the largely virtual Toronto International Film Festival in September. Kawase and her cast weren’t able to attend in person, and she says she misses the interactions such events allow.
“I want to get up there in front of people who’ve seen it,” she says. “I think that emotional exchange is a source of power for creators, but it brings strength to the audience as well.”
“True Mothers” opens in theaters nationwide on Oct. 23. For more information, visit asagakuru-movie.jp (Japanese only).