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Silent Suffering: Maternal Shame Explored in 'Confessions'

Manami's funeral in Confessions
Toho Co. Ltd.

Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions is often labelled as a psychological revenge thriller, centred upon the tragic narrative of Yuko Moriguchi (Takako Matsu), a teacher whose daughter falls victim to the brutality of two of her students, Shuya Watanabe (Yukito Nishii) and Naoki Shimomura (Kaoru Fujiwara). Yet, beneath the surface of this classification lies a narrative that transcends the boundaries of a typical thriller, revealing itself as a profound dissection of shame and its impact on maternal identity. Through the intimately woven stories of Yuko Moriguchi and Naoki’s mother, Yuko Shimomura (Yoshino Kimura), the film ventures into the complexities of guilt, responsibility, and societal expectations through the framework of Japanese culture. At its core lies the corrosive force of shame and self-blame, leading to tragic repercussions stemming from societal pressures and personal trauma experienced by both mothers.


For Moriguchi and Shimomura, their identities as mothers defines them. There is no self-expression shown, as their identities are smothered beneath their children’s well-being. Both mothers find themselves trapped within societal expectations, where their identities are deeply intertwined with their roles as caregivers. This burden is further compounded by Japan’s legal system, particularly the Juvenile Law of 1947, which absolves children under 14 from accountability for their crimes, placing the blame squarely on the parents. As a result, Moriguchi and Shimomura grapple with the suffocating weight of guilt and responsibility. 


Naoki carrying Manami
Toho Co. Ltd.

Moriguchi’s identity undergoes a profound transformation following the tragic loss of her daughter, Manami (Mana Ashida). Stripped of her role as a mother, she finds herself confined to the label of a teacher, while overshadowed by societal judgment and the shame of perceived failure. At one point, Shimomura strongly contends that Moriguchi should bear the greatest shame for prioritizing her role as a mother over her duties as a teacher, especially given Moriguchi's status as a single mother. This belief is exemplified by Moriguchi's decision to bring her daughter, Manami, to the school when her regular caretaker fell ill. Both Shimomura and Moriguchi's students argue that she should have placed the morally upright position of a teacher above the perceived shameful role of a single mother. This conviction stems from Shimomura's belief that her son Naoki was led astray by classmate Shuya, a situation she contends might have been prevented if Moriguchi had prioritized her students' welfare over her maternal responsibilities. “It’s not fair,” Shimomura cries to Moriguchi, “It’s not fair!”


Shimomura's resentful condemnation of Moriguchi, echoed by her son, underscores a deeply entrenched societal belief that individuals are primarily defined by their roles. In a culture where there is considerable stigma attached to the role of a single mother, Moriguchi was expected to adhere to her role as a teacher and shoulder the responsibility for her students' involvement in her daughter's demise. However, Moriguchi diverged from this expectation, unwilling to embrace such a narrative, and instead held Naoki and Shuya accountable for their actions. 


Moriguchi holding Manami in Confessions
Toho Co. Ltd.

This stark contrast in response to societal expectations is exemplified by Shimomura’s identity, which is solely defined by her role as a dutiful mother—a role that is profoundly challenged when her son confesses to murder in response to Moriguchi's inquiries. Excusing her son from school on pretext of illness, Shimomura isolates herself alongside Naoki. There are weekly visits from his new homeroom teacher that are first welcomed then ignored as Naoki throws fits of blind rage, and his mother becomes desperate to hide him from the outside world. There is a suffocating feeling that only increases as Shimomura waits at her son’s door, hoping that he will let her in, a space between them that can’t be overcome, one that is heavier than the front door that Naoki leaves tightly closed. 


Then, there is Shuya’s mother, known only as Assistant Professor Yasaka (Ikuyo Kuroda), later Seguchi after her remarriage, who stands apart from traditional motherhood ideals. She sheds the role of a mother by abandoning her son to focus on her career instead. She has a space of her own—an office at the university—with a photo of herself and her new husband, suggesting a life beyond her role as a mother. Yet Shuya’s mother is viewed as an antagonistic figure, one condemned for her refusal of motherhood. She resented becoming pregnant with Shuya and her marriage to his father, with her rage becoming physical when she viewed Shuya as inheriting her talent, but none of her ability. Abusing and abandoning Shuya, his mother becomes a distorted figure, one that is difficult to empathize with. She is the opposite of Moriguchi and Shimomura and seems as selfish as they are selfless toward their children.


Shuya's mother abandons her son in Confessions
Toho Co. Ltd.

However, is this true? Confessions is filled with unreliable narrators, ones who are seemingly representative of the roles they play. While Moriguchi and Shimomura are driven by shame and responsibility for their children, there is a degree of selfishness in their actions, and an unwillingness to look outside of their roles. Moriguchi later seems to recognize that her ex-fiancé deserved a role in Manami’s life; noting that the first and only time that he held his daughter was at her funeral. And Shimomura keeps herself and her house in a perfect state, drugging her son with sleeping pills to cut his hair and change his clothing. Yet, Shimomura overlooks her son’s need for clinical help, instead confining them both to their home while rigidly adhering to her role. 


And yet, outside of their roles as mothers, Moriguchi and Shimomura appear as empty characters, because they are empty. Their identities are singularly defined by their roles as caregivers, with their personal belongings serving as reminders of their purpose. Moriguchi clings to Manami's belongings, while Shimomura treasures a scrapbook filled with photos of Naoki. This stark contrast with Shuya’s distant mother underscores the suffocating nature of traditional motherhood expectations and the potential consequences of rejecting or embracing them. It portrays how the absence of a life beyond motherhood can lead to an emptiness of self, where personal identity becomes subsumed by the responsibilities of motherhood.


Shuya and his mother in Confessions
Toho Co. Ltd.

Neither is there an escape from it for any of the mothers involved. Throughout the film, an undercurrent of these burdens manifests in the women’s inability to evade the consequences of their children's actions. Despite Japan's juvenile law ostensibly placing accountability on both parents, it is the mothers who bear the brunt of societal judgment and condemnation. Fathers are fleeting figures in the narrative, highlighting how the traditional roles that Japanese society encourages for women are often defined by loneliness and isolation. This theme is exemplified by both Shimomura, whose only reference to her husband is that he is away on business, and by Moriguchi, who deliberately keeps her ex-fiancé, the father of Manami, at a distance, unwilling to subject their daughter to the stigma of his illness—HIV, later developing into AIDS. At the same time, both men seem to accept this inherent distance from their children. 


As the film delves deeper into the ramifications of Japan's juvenile law, it becomes evident that the burdens faced by the mothers are intricately intertwined with societal expectations and judgments. The confrontation with this legal framework prompts introspection among the mothers, forcing them to grapple with their sense of culpability. However, rather than offering solace or resolution, this introspection only serves to deepen their sense of entrapment. Shimomura's incapacity to accept the reality of her son's actions reflects the profound psychological toll of societal judgment, while Moriguchi's act of violent retribution by redirecting the bomb planted by Shuya to his mother's office underscores the desperation of a mother seeking justice for her daughter's death. 


Manami dies in Confessions
Toho Co. Ltd.

Moriguchi's poignant question to Shuya—"Why should innocent people die for you?"— encapsulates the inherent paradox of maternal responsibility, wherein the mothers are held accountable for the actions of their children, even as they struggle to reconcile their maternal instincts with the harsh realities of their circumstances. Despite their efforts to redefine themselves beyond the confines of motherhood, the women remain inexorably tied to this identity, unable to escape the societal expectations and judgments that accompany it. Shuya’s mother could not escape her role, the same as Shimomura and Moriguchi never could, had they even tried. 


Ultimately, Confessions transcends its genre as a psychological revenge thriller, offering a profound exploration of maternal identity and the enduring impact of shame within the cultural context of Japan. Through the intimately woven stories of Moriguchi and Shimomura, the film challenges viewers to confront the corrosive nature of shame and the complex interplay of guilt and responsibility, underscoring the universal truths that resonate beyond the confines of its narrative.

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