There is this documentary about the World Trade Center attacks that is called Rebirth. This is not that.
When Kiwako got pregnant, Hiroshi had convinced her to get an abortion, saying that he wanted to wait until he divorced Etsuko before starting a family with her. Either he was lying at the time or he got cold feet, because he stayed with Etsuko. Kiwako tried to stay away, but Etsuko would frequently harass her; not about trying to take her husband, but about getting knocked up, getting an abortion, and seemingly becoming infertile afterwards. The harassment worsened after Etsuko got pregnant with Erina.
When Erina was four months old, Kiwako abducted her and called her Kaoru, the name that she would have given her baby. Around her fourth birthday, Erina was found and Kiwako was put away for six years. Etsuko would have preferred her be put to death. It would take a long time for Erina to accept her name, and to accept Hiroshi and Etsuko as her real parents. Even then, it was only intellectually; she would be unable to really grow close to them, despite their best efforts.
Twenty years later, Erina is a woman alone. She got into a relationship with her married college instructor and has tried unsuccessfully to break it off. Otherwise, she does not really have anyone else and seems okay with that. Well, except for John Mayer; she listens to John Mayer. She has been living a rather anonymous life when a woman around her age approaches her. Her name is Ando, a freelance writer who has been researching Erina’s abduction case. Erina claims to have forgotten all of it, so Ando hands her a folder of news clippings.
After a bit of uncertainty, Erina starts looking at the clippings, and parts of her past come up. Some of it is of her returning to her parents and seeing them as strangers. Some of it is of the first day of her abduction. Ando approaches her the next night, and Erina takes a walk with her, if only to use her as an excuse to keep her sort-of boyfriend away. Ando tells her that she wants to write about the abduction and Erina restates that she does not remember anything. Ando, about as excitable and impulsive as Erina is reserved, kind of invites herself to Erina’s home and, specifically, to her fridge.
The next morning, Ando starts her interview. Erina reveals that she had actually read several of those documents years ago, having peaked at them when her mother took them home and tried to hide them. She claimed that they confused her with all of the information and sensationalism to the point where she felt that she was reading about someone else. Perhaps she is reading about someone else, specifically about Kiwako.
Kiwako had stayed at a friend’s place overnight, claiming that the baby was hers, that her name was Kaoru, and that the father hit Kaoru. When news of the abduction grew, Kiwako took Kaoru to another city, eventually settling in at what initially appeared to be a nun-run women’s shelter called Angel House. It is there that they would stay for the next few years, taking the names Ruth and Rebecca.
Hiroshi visits Erina one day to give her some money and to ask her to call her mother. Erina rejects the money and, seemingly without malice, says that he is no good at playing the father. This visit brings back memories of when she tried to run away from her parents to find the woman whom she still considered her mother and of one of the times when Etsuko broke down, scaring her into a string of desperately confused apologies.
I should probably stop here, as there is quite a bit more plot and a string of reveals that start coming right after this point, which would muddle up this post. It was already difficult writing a summary of the first fifty-five minutes, as the flashbacks jump around quite a bit in the early stages.
As in many societies, Japanese culture places a lot of importance on women giving birth to children and being there for them. The idea of fathers in this movie is on the periphery, and practically an afterthought by the end. Men are simply meant to work hard to make money so that the family can afford the good life. Thus, the scene where Hiroshi offers money to Erina and she rejects it. The movie could have spent some time pointing the finger at him for being a cheater, a liar, and a coward. Its interests, however, lie elsewhere.
This movie seems to be primarily about the interconnected notions of womanhood, motherhood, and family. The notion of motherhood defining womanhood is pervasive. This is what leads to the struggle between Kiwako and Etsuko, not Hiroshi’s infidelity. When Kiwako had her abortion, that was seen as rejecting her role as a mother and, thus, her role as a woman. Her subsequent infertility was a negation of her identity as a woman, maybe even as a human. Etsuko saw getting pregnant as her victory as a woman over her rival. Kiwako taking Erina was not so much revenge against Hiroshi and Etsuko, but a chance at redemption as a woman. The woman in charge of Angel House tried to dispel her of the notion that motherhood defines one’s identity as a woman, but it did not stick…and also Angel House had its own issues. Just like with that John Mayer song that plays throughout, the movie does not really make an overt judgement about notion that womanhood is motherhood; it is what it is. The movie shows some consequences of it.
Anyways, while Etsuko was able to give birth to a child, it was Kiwako who was able to be the child’s mother. Instead of apologizing to Hiroshi and Etsuko at the end of her trial, an unrepentant Kiwako thanks them for giving her the opportunity at motherhood. This motherhood is denied to Etsuko. While Erina eventually began to resent Kiwako for ruining her childhood, that ruined childhood prevented her from psychologically accepting Etsuko as her real mother. So, Kiwako got nearly four years of happiness as a mother. Etsuko got four months.
Assigning blame is for the courts, not for this movie. Just like Shinzo Abe, nobody truly apologizes, and so calling them out will go only so far. Just as the movie does not really make a judgement about gender roles, it is a little ambivalent about Kiwako’s actions. For sure, what she did for nearly four years was highly illegal and ruined three lives. The scenes with adult Erina show that the scars of the past have not fully healed, as much as she tries to hide them. Yet, if one watches only certain portions of the flashbacks, one might view her as a single mother who was trying her best and doing a pretty good job considering what was available to her. The movie certainly treats her with more sympathy than it treats Erina’s biological parents.
There is this vague sense that Kiwako and Kaoru would have done fine had the initial circumstances not been so. This may what makes it all worse for Erina, though. These are not horrible memories of her terrible childhood; they are memories of various happy childhoods that were ripped away from her at precisely the worst moments. That is what she had suppressed for all these years. She starts fearing that she will not be able to escape that cycle, but also becomes more determined to do so, even if she is not sure how.
This movie is very sad. Pretty much all of the characters are damaged, some of them from each other’s actions. That said, it is not a bleak movie. It may not provide any sort of scathing critiques that one might want, but there is hope in the unanswered questions. The lack of answers may be frustrating, but it also allows for possibilities. The hope is that the positive possibilities win out.
WTF ASIA 128: A Sun (Taiwan: 2019, approx. 156 minutes)
WTF ASIA 129: Musa (South Korea: 2019, approx. 159 minutes)