My Mother's Eyes

My Mother’s Eyes (2023)

My Mother’s Eyes had its international première on Mon 28th Aug at FrightFest

My Mother’s Eyes opens with a close-up of a woman’s eyes, tearing, anguished, and then – after the sound of a newborn’s cry – flushed with relief and anxiety and a complicated kind of happiness, as the music of a cello fills the soundtrack. Next we see the same woman’s eyes reflected in a knife that Hitomi Eida (Akane Ono) uses to slice a banana while her now teenaged daughter Eri (Mone Shitara) practises the cello in their clean, well-appointed home. In a sense this is a picture of a happy, healthy mother-daughter relationship in well-tuned evolution – much as the series of framed photos in their living room shows a progression, indeed a family legacy, from Hitomi playing cello, to Hitomi with her baby Eri, to Eri at various ages herself playing cello and winning awards. One-time player Hitomi has become a mother, teacher and composer, while her daughter has taken the bow. 

Yet there is also dissonance here, hidden beneath the surface harmony. It is not just the early image of Hitomi’s eyes ominously reflected in the kitchen knife, or the coincidence of the title with Nicolas Pesce’s The Eyes of My Mother (2016), whose central mother-daughter dynamic proves deeply, murderously psychotic. For demure Hitomi wears her smile as a mask, and keeps her secrets. She has not told anyone, including Eri, that her eyes are failing. She also, behind Eri’s back, hooks up with the divorced Segawa (Hisashi) on a dating site for ‘some fun’, and oddly fails to mention to him, even when the obvious opportunity to do so arises, that she has a daughter. The way that Hitomi’s sex with Segawa – in a bedroom full of fishtanks – is figured as her roughly playing his body like a cello suggests both that the music she has had to sideline to become a mother has always been her one true passion, and that, left to her own devices, she is willing to instrumentalise others, even violently so, in pursuit of her own furtive pleasures.

The mother-daughter relationship is both staged and tested when Eri proposes that Hitomi’s latest composition be performed by both of them as a duet. “Listen very carefully to the music your partner makes,” Hitomi tells Eri as they rehearse at home. “Then we can become one piece of music together.” Eri does listen, and reveals, after they have played the piece for the first time together in front of an audience, that what she has heard is her mother’s aching regret at ever having had a daughter. This confrontation leads to an accident that changes everything, leaving Hitomi totally blind and Eri paralysed below the neck.

Yet once Hitomi has been brought to the woodland home of reclusive ophthalmologist Wanibuchi (Shusaku Uchida) and his listless son Satoshi (Takuma Izumi), she will set out to prove her love for Eri by patching up a direct video link between the experimental contact lenses from Wanibuchi that have restored her sight, and the VR headset worn by her daughter. Now Eri, immobilised in a hospital bed, can see everything that Hitomi sees, and can give her mother instructions of what to do and say in these new circumstances. In an act of devoted sacrifice, Hitomi surrenders herself to her daughter’s will – which is perhaps merely what all mothers do, and what Hitomi has been doing since the moment she first gave birth, only here presented in exaggerated, extreme form.

So mother and daughter ‘become one’ once again, and continue, from their different locations, playing together in a game of submission, assimilation and vicarious experience. Yet this duet is really a quartet, as Hitomi, with Eri’s approval, begins a relationship with Satoshi – himself a former cellist and young enough to be her son. Indeed after some time Hitomi is pregnant again, even as the mysterious, aloof Wanibuchi engages in his own perverse efforts to maintain his ménage (à trois) by manipulating everything that it sees and hears. 

My Mother’s Eyes is the second feature from writer/director Takeshi Kushida, and like his debut Woman of the Photographs (2020), it explores the peculiar nexus between body, image and self, even as its focus on duplicity, damage and duetting cellists also evokes Richard Shepard’s The Perfection (2018). Here, through surreal imagery, mannered performances and oddly disembodied first-person perspectives, Kushida conjures a picture of family relations as ties that bind, strings that cut, and choices that are profoundly curtailed or controlled.

These characters are playing a strange tune together, modulated not only with melancholy and regret, but with the hope, perhaps delusional, that things will somehow be better next time around. Theirs is a heady, hallucinatory tragedy of domestic bubbles, where everyone’s view is as limited as that of a fish in a bowl, and where, despite the feminine title, patriarchy is still very much in place. For in My Mother’s Eyes, the question of who exactly is pulling – and plucking – all the strings very much depends on your point of view.

strap: Takeshi Kushida’s surreal family psychodrama places maternity, manipulation and myopia under its distorting lens

© Anton Bitel