Based on a serial story “Yôkame no semi” (The Eighth Day) by Mitsuyo Kakuta, Rebirth (八日目の蝉) had previously been brought to the small screen in Japan. Indeed, it was only screened on NHK last year, so the transition to the big screen has been an incredibly rapid process. Dealing with the weighty issues of the loss of innocence, confronting pain and the past, Rebirth is never an easy film, but it is also one of the strongest dramatic contenders at this year’s Japanese Film Festival.
After the collapse of their relationship, Kiwako (Hiromi Nagasaku, Wandering Home) abducts the 6-month old child of a man she was having an affair with. Raising the child as her own, it is four years before the authorities catch up with her and the young child, Erina, is returned to her birth parents. Etsuko (Yoko Moriguchi, TSY) blames rival Kiwako for depriving the child of her real parents during her developmental years, and lashes out at both Kiwako and ultimately Erina. Twenty years later, the adult Erina (Mao Inoue, Oba: The Last Samurai) struggles to come to terms with what happened as a child. She too is having an affair with a married man, and when she becomes pregnant she decides to return to where she was raised by Kiwako and confront her past.
There is a great temptation when adapting a tale such as this to aim for maximum melodrama, although director Izuru Narushima manages to avoid much of this in a very straightforward telling of this tale. Using a series of flashbacks to the now damanged Erina’s childhood, we are given two arguments. The first is the impassioned birth-mother Etsuko calling for Kiwako’s blood in court, playing every bit the part of the aggrieved mother. So too has Erina come to blame “that woman” for much of her emotional damage throughout her life, but as the flashbacks play out, the allegiances of the audience may begin to shift. Erina’s return home was not a happy one, with the child initially urinating herself upon her return to her birth parents. We soon find an abusive mother who is unable to reconnect with her absentee daughter, and her father is emotionally disengaged. It is not simply the pain of the return of their daughter either: we discover that Etsuko would frequently taunt and abuse Kiwako over her barren womb.
Perhaps this is simply because, as the tale unfolds, there is a persistent truth that Kiwako was a better mother to Erina than Etsuko was ever capable of being. As Erina literally journeys to the places of her past, the memories unfurl like the petals of a flower. Narushima’s beautiful photograph is ofttimes stark, but also delicate and dreamy. It is almost as if viewing the movie is like walking through a fog-like state of being, only to be met with shocking states of clarity.
Anchoring the film are the amazing performances from the largely all female cast. After her successful run on the Boys Over Flowers TV series, Mao Inoue’s theatrical star has risen with a series of high-profile gigs, including starring opposite superstar Yutaka Takenouchi in Oba: The Last Samurai. As the film slides neatly into a temporal two-hander, she and Hiromi Nagasaku find ways of incorporating elements of their characters into each others performances, despite not sharing at screen time together. Rebirth is a deeply moving tale that will have you questioning your own beliefs as it makes a firm stand in the “nature versus nurture” debate.