This year’s Philadelphia Film Festival boasted a strong documentary sidebar, and among them was a surprising and altogether affecting film called From The Shadows which could easily have fit into the upcoming Philadelphia Asian American Film Fest as well. The title would have you believe that it were a horror film, and that wouldn’t be far from the truth because it exposes a grim reality. Directors Matt Antell and David Hearn delve into the subject of international parental abduction, in which one parent (most often mothers) of an interracial couple absconds with their own child back to their own native country (in this case, Japan) without notifying the “left-behind parent,” (in this case the American-born parent, most often a father). More specifically, From The Shadows follows these “Left-behind Parents” who under Japanese law and custody policy have literally no rights to see, contact, or know anything about their abducted child, nor is it mandated that the child be sent back to their birth country. This is also the case for intra-Japanese couples, whereby one parent takes (in the truest sense of the word) custody of their own child and leaves the other parent in the lurch.
Because Japanese custody law and custom defines physical custody as custody, and operates by a rule of sole-and-full custody for only one parent (most often the mother), the first parent to get to the child in a separation or divorce, wins in a sense. These events are considered domestic disputes, so the law itself and family courts are almost wholly evasive about affecting any mediation or outcome. The reason Japan has been labeled as a black hole for abducted children, is because it is one of a handful of countries that refused to sign the 1980 The Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which would ultimately force abductor parents to return their child to the country of their birth. Japan also represents one of the highest number of Parental Abduction cases worldwide. Because Japan doesn’t currently consider parental abduction a crime, their policy, which does not condone abduction, can be exploited as a perfect storm of loopholes to enable it. Every year since then, the issue has been “under consideration,” however Japan has signaled its intent to ratify the Convention during 2012. This remains to be seen, but it is closer than ever to becoming a reality.
This circumstance is slowly – that is to say, glacially – changing from the ground up as well. In Japan, an advocacy group is promoting a system of supervised visitation services, so that “left-behind parents” – at least those of intra-Japanese couples – can have safe contact with their child without frightening the abductor parent into further seclusion. It was a modicum of hope in a film that gets deep inside the experiences of Left Behind Parents that have almost no other option than to fly to Japan and wait outside of their child’s school for a visit that may last 30 sec, and that could result in arrest. My stomach churns just thinking about those excruciating scenes. It is an exemplary documentary with a fierce sense of urgency and drama, that gets to the heart of a massive cultural divergence on parental philosophy.
As luck would have it, I recently (yesterday) stumbled upon a film called No Blood Relation, by Mikio Naruse who, thanks to the Criterion Collection’s dedicated proliferation of his works, is rapidly becoming a favorite of mine. No Blood Relation (1932) is a silent film that covers the sensitive issue at the heart of From The Shadows, and therefore works as a fictional companion piece. Tamae returns to Tokyo after years of success in Hollywood on a whim to reclaim the daughter Shigeko, whom she abandoned years before for a man and an overseas career. She suffers from the delusion that this will be easy, or that she is entitled to do so, considering the fact that her former husband Shunsaku, has remarried and that this woman, Masako, is for all intents and purposes, Shigeko’s mother. When Shunsaku goes to jail for a job related infraction, Tamae swoops in to manipulate his vain mother Kishiyo – eager to maintain a comfortable lifestyle – into abducting Shigeko while Masako is slaving at her job. Masako never loses vigil in her struggle to regain Shigeko despite the cards stacked against her as a non-biological parent. Nor does Shigeko wan in her love for Masako, who she knows as her real mother. The main difference in Naurse’s scenario is that Masako is an adoptive parent, and those in From The Shadows are biological parents. The reality is the same. The strain, heartache, and powerlessness are the same, especially as Naruse seeks to expand the definition of parenthood beyond biology. “It is the raising of a child, not giving birth, that makes one a parent,” one of the characters says.
No Blood Relation is simply powerful, and powerfully simple. Its content, as proven by From The Shadows, is still relevant. Naruse’s distinct early visual style is on full display. Quick forward tracking shots into characters faces, sequences expertly edited to narrativize through pacing, and small detail shots of objects and scenes outside of the immediate drama to create a rounded sense of time and place, abound. For these reasons, Naruse’s delicate handling of socio-domestic drama rich with subtext, and his focus on strong willed female characters, No Blood Relation – and any other title under his direction – is worth the time.
No Blood Relation is available on Criterion Collection’s Hulu Plus channel, as well as on Criterion DVD in the Eclipse 26: Silent Naruse box set.