Rebirth – Review
A woman named Kiwako abducts a baby from a man whom she has had an affair with. For four years Kiwako raises the child as her own, traveling and attempting to live a normal life, until one day she is arrested. The child named Erina is then returned to her birth parents, but she can’t find peace. As an adult, Erina also becomes involved with a married man and becomes pregnant. To confront her past, Erina goes to Shodoshima where she lived with Kiwako as a child. There Erina discovers a shocking truth about her past and is forced to make a decision regarding her future.
Winner of the Japanese Academy Prize award for Picture of the Year and based on the novel by author Mitsuyo Kakuta, Rebirth addresses quite a difficult subject—that of child abduction. This is an issue that is often one riddled with hardship, abuse, and perhaps even death, but what happens if the child is safely returned after spending a substantial amount of time with their abductor? How do the emotional conflictions of the abductee’s family fare in their attempt to find some resolution? What does it mean for the abductee who spent their formulative years as a child with someone that isn’t really their mother, and how do they fit back into society once knowing this? Director Izuru Narushima’s Rebirth attempts to tackle these very difficult questions with considerable attention towards the personal and familial turmoil that arises from facing such challenges.
Heralded by a fantastic cast led by Mao Inoue and Hiromi Nagasaku, Rebirth is a film that views the psychological effects of child abduction in a way rarely viewed within cinema. It’s not a film that simply condones child abduction as a wrong—which it does still emphasize to a degree—but allows us to explore the reasons behind someone’s will to partake in such an act. Opening with a courtroom statement by the mother of the abductee, Etsuko Akiyama (Yoko Moriguchi), in which she addresses the concerns over the future of her relationship with recently discovered daughter Erina, we then see this juxtaposed with Kiwako Nonomiya’s (Hiromi Nagasaku) subsequent confessional that she has no regrets for what she did, the film conveys this sense of duality shared between these two “mothers”—one representing the biological and one the maternal. The film further elaborates on how this situation has affected family and friends as well, including that of Erina herself, played here by Mao Inoue in perhaps her most challenging and demanding role yet.
We see the personal issues that Erina faces from her abduction from the very outset of the film. Viewed as a detached, emotionally diminished individual that keeps a superficial relationship with that of her biological parents, Erina is seen as one avoiding becoming close with those around her. We slowly learn that her relationship with her mother Etsuko is particularly tragic, with the film intercutting between the past and present to showcase her strained bond with her. This is perhaps best viewed in a scene where a young Erina, having just recently been returned home, asks her mother if she can sing the “star song” to her—a song Erina learnt from Kiwako—in which Etsuko desperately attempts to do so but ends up sobbing in failure, to Erina refusing to acknowledge that her mother truly cares for her, the film offers up a character that is conflicted as to who she truly is as a daughter. As such, the film is much more a character study of the long-lasting effects that abduction has on an individual, viewed in Erina’s attempts to understand how her traumatic past as child correlates to her nature as an adult woman.
Equally as impressive is Hiromi Nagasaku’s portrayal of Kiwako, who we see as a fragile individual wanting to simply be a mother. The film could’ve easily portrayed her character as someone whom the audience would find distasteful given her involvement in abduction, but returning to the duality that the film presents in the form of motherhood, we slowly begin to sympathize with her plight as a woman unable to conceive a child on her own after a past experience with abortion. The film slowly begins to ease our initial impressions that Kiwako is a woman that should be readily punished for her actions, but we begin to see that perhaps she was more positively influential in Erina’s life than Etsuko ever was. Her relationship to the young Erina transcends her title of abductor, as we begin to view her as an important and thoughtful element of Erina’s early life, with the caring nature of a mother being visible through her strenuous dedication to the wellbeing of young Erina. The narrative parallels the past and the present as well in regards to Kiwako and Erina’s short lived but endearing relationship, with poignant moments shared between them reinforcing Erina’s decisions later as an adult.
The film showcases Kiwako’s raising of the young Erina as a tumultuous journey filled with loving tenderness and eventual heartbreak, as the film’s foregone conclusion is established from the opening moments of the film. We know that Kiwako and young Erina’s relationship isn’t one that will last for too long, which makes the impact of their severance all the more emotionally riveting and heartbreaking. But while the film may be focused upon their inevitable separation, it’s also about the life choices that adult Erina must face given the discovery of her past experiences as a child. The narrative slowly unveils how her brief time with Kiwako could drastically influence a significant event later in her life, even to the point of her facing the same misgivings as Kiwako experienced herself. This may appear as an unchallenging attempt to correlate Erina’s predicament with that of Kiwako’s, but the film never dares to become as melodramatic as its premise may easily lead one to believe. There is a sense of realism here; with Narushima depicting these wounded characters as lost amidst a distressing past that provides no rest for those unwilling to courageously confront it.
At its core, Rebirth is a well-crafted and honest narrative that doesn’t provide any simple solutions to the dilemmas these characters face. Interspersed throughout the lives of both Kiwako and Erina are equal moments of joy and sadness, but Narushima does an exceptional job of encapsulating the fleeting nature of their relationship. This honesty of confronting the past in order to understand one’s futures is where Rebirth shines as a powerful testament to motherhood and personal empowerment. Narushima is seemingly keen on delivering a tale that isn’t marred with overly dramatic relationships that hinge on the edges of reality, but garners an appreciable approach that conveys these characters as removed from being simple archetypical relationships and rather ones burgeoning with immense complexity. Through the powerful performances by Mao Inoue and Hiromi Nagasaku, and sensible direction by Izuru Narushima, Rebirth is a deeply touching and moving experience filled with heartache but also optimism towards the issues it addresses.
Author: Miguel Douglas
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