A review of my film
and Michelle's story
Dr Michelle Braunstein, a fellow Australian and an award-winning multi-disciplinary writer, researcher, editor and teacher, was kind enough to not only review my documentary, but also tell us a little bit about why it resonated with her so much. I was touched by her story, and she is just one of many people who have reached out to me online since I first published the trailer for The Ones Left Behind - The Plight of Single Mothers in Japan online. Here is the trailer for those who haven’t yet had the chance to see it.
And if you’d like to hear me talk about why I am so passionated about this film, you can do so here:
And that’s enough of me talking! Here is Dr Braunstein’s review.
Rionne McAvoy’s documentary film, “The Ones Left Behind - The Plight of Single Mothers in Japan” offers the viewer numerous ways into its subject. Some will wander in along the political boulevard, others via the personal side street. Others still will find themselves with one foot in each — the uncomfortable straddle of those with lived experience and a wish to protect others from it. Like a streetlight at an intersection, McAvoy’s documentary reveals where seemingly contradictory and coinciding phenomena meet. Suffering and dignity existing at once is a key paradox present in its subjects’ experiences. McAvoy does not clobber the viewer, as much as invite us into the lives of gently stoic women and innocent children who are at risk. His cinematic respect for them is compelling. His command of the art of ‘showing, not telling’ occurred for me as both Japanese and the mark of someone in charge of their craft.
If I had have been aware of McAvoy’s careful handling of complexity before seeing it, it would have gone a long way to resolving the reservations I held about the film beforehand. Despite my strong curiosity in the subject matter I couldn’t help but wonder, ‘would ‘The Ones Left Behind’ pontificate from a western liberal rights perspective, as though ‘we/us’ (an imagined community’s pronouns) must have it all worked out? Would it frame Japan monolithically as a backward oriental ‘Other’?’
On viewing ‘The Ones Left Behind’ I found that in no way does this film patronise Japanese culture or paint the West as having a superior ontology or a more advanced political/cultural/economic framework. Rather, it makes quite clear that post-war global capitalism is the main monster mauling at lives in Japan, wherein women (and their children) must be damned if they stay in miserable or violent marriages and damned if they don’t. The film also left me wondering, as a matter of pure economic and cultural pragmatism — with a population crisis in the post for this advanced capitalist Asian state, should policy-makers be asking if the plight of single mothers in Japan (and by extension, mothers who stay in violent or unhealthy marriages to avoid being single) is part of why so many women are choosing not to procreate at all?
Here and now, on the particular avenue that is this film review, you and I, reader, have reached a fork in the road. You, as a self-determining choose-you-own adventurer, may either:
A) read on through the vicissitudes of my personal and relational encounter with McAvoy’s film, or
B) simply scroll to where I talk very specifically about the storytelling conventions he cleverly and sensitively employs.
A warning: if you choose to start with path A) I penned this post with crimson ink that this film squeezed from my heart. The women’s stories hurt and at the same time they rang out clear and crisp. In the same way that a gong is a kind of sound bath, the truth-telling in McAvoy’s film feels cleansing and dignifying. Honesty has a way of doing that, and I feel grateful to have had the opportunity to bear witness to such profound sharing. It has inspired me to do the same.
My crimson coated quill poised, I present to you now how this film intersects with my own encounters.
As a teenager in the 90s in Australia, I was a middle class latch-key kid from the divorce generation. And while at the age of 11 I felt tremendously relieved when my parents split up — their marriage had been volatile and mostly miserable — they still each struggled, seemingly a lot, as single parents. My mother’s biggest burden was psychological, and this was now in a new kind of overdrive due to having been left. My dad, at the time, toiled to fund two households so we all had enough to survive; enough to be clothed, fed and educated. Enough for pizzas, iced drinks from the convenience store and a footlong stack of movies from Video Ezy on a Saturday night.
Enough that my brother and I could play Sonic the Hedgehog and I could make mix-tapes for my friends. Band names like ‘Suicidal Tendencies’ and ‘Jane’s Addiction’ gave me ideas. My dad knew/didn’t know. I liked being at his place because he was busy and he left me and my ‘floordrobe’ alone. It was a classic 90s divorce scenario for a while, and truthfully, although my parents each struggled, our material conditions were good enough.
When I was fifteen, even though I was bringing home my mandated straight A’s, Dad decided he was no longer OK with my slacker lifestyle. We had an enormous argument and didn’t speak for several years thereafter. I was soon back on the suffocating and passively hostile planet of my mother’s place. Despite many attempts, what finally released me from her orbit was my move to Japan in the early 2000s.
Before that, in my late teens and early twenties, I had met people in Australia who had had significantly more difficult experiences of growing up in single-parent families than what I had had to deal with. One friend’s father put all of his assets into his new wife’s name to avoid paying child support, leaving his ex-wife to support their four children alone on an unskilled wage. Another friend missed months of school during childhood due to ill respiratory health, his mother’s inability to afford medical intervention and his father’s emotional and material neglect. Another friend’s food consumption was policed by her mother and perceived infractions (ie. eating without permission) precipitated a beating.
The plight of single-mothers and their children is not a Japan-only problem. But it is a problem.
My first encounter with a Japanese single mother was a student, Rie*. Her children were adults, and in the year or so prior to studying English at the school I worked at, she had suffered from cancer and a mastectomy, along with the pain and uncertainty of starting a new life as a divorcee in her fifties. I still remember how in her elegance and stoicism, she reminded me of the women on my father’s side of my family, all Egyptian. The ‘no BS’ look in her eye especially reminded me of my grandmother. There was something about her determination to thrive in her life that has stayed with me even after all this time.
The next place I met a single mother in Japan was in the outdoor party scene. Compared with Rie, Tomoko was a new mother, her son only two years old. His father was American and doing time in Japanese prison for selling cannabis. Their child, a ‘hafu’ (a Japanese term for half Japanese, half non-Japanese and taken from English “half”), seemed a symbol of hybridity and a denizen of the ‘global village’ to the hippie forest ravers. They showered love upon this beautiful child, taking care of him at their campsites while Tomoko let her hair down on the outdoor dance floor, the stars our brilliant canopy. But it was fairly evident that when the party was over, it was up to her to do the real and grinding work of raising him. And although I did not know the full details yet of how Japanese single mothers are treated by mainstream society, when I look back, it was etched all over her face.
Twenty years later, one of my closest friends in the world, a Tokyoite office worker, Kayo* would also join the ranks of single motherhood. Over video calls during the pandemic, she related how her ex-husband had threatened to burn her parents’ house down, because she and their baby sought refuge there from his violence. He would follow up such threats with apologies and promises of support. He worked in his father’s business and owned multiple properties. He wasn’t short of money. But support would not eventuate without recriminations and strings attached, and then the reigniting of the instability and violence cycle. At one time, after an attempted access visit, Kayo had to run through an underground carpark with her baby in a pram to escape him. My breath catches in my throat when I imagine her trying to quieten the echoes of her feet and the rolling pram wheels in the concrete twilight zone. She is relieved to have finally and completely severed ties with her ex-husband even if it means no financial or emotional support at all from him in the future for their child. At least she, her parents, and her child, can be safe, although I suspect that trauma lingers.
Kayo and her parents are a middle class family. Her parents are retired but her father receives a reasonable pension from many years’ service as a salaryman for a Japanese company. Kayo works full-time for a large multinational corporation and receives a modest income. How could this happen? How was it that even people with what one would think would be the wherewithal to keep a family safe and make a ex-husband/father accountable could not do so? What would that mean for working class single mothers, or those existing in other marginalised circumstances, such as having disability and/or foreigner status? Kayo says without her parents, she and her daughter would live in poverty. She has also shared with me that in Japan, children of single mothers are often bullied in school. It is my sincere wish that for this dear little one, that this does not eventuate.
The matter also gives me cause to consider several women in Australia I know who are single mothers and who cleaned up in their divorces. One especially received substantive proceeds that have set her and her child up considerably well. They have a beautiful home in a bayside suburb, travel, eat out and generally enjoy life. Yet I also know single mothers here who move house every six months, or live in caravans. Once again, single motherhood is not a monolith; it is not always liberating and suffering is not exclusive to Japan.
Indeed, McAvoy’s film journeys into how the global system sets up almost unsurmountable barriers for single mothers’ inclusion in Japanese society, particularly with regard to their income and access to meaningful work. Through offering the women respondents a voice to tell of their struggles along with their incredible resilience, the film goes to the heart of the matter while still upholding the dignity of its subjects.
Striking archival footage represents how gender and economics have unfolded in the shadow of Japan’s post-war rise to economic prosperity. We see how before World War II, both women and men worked, and elders raised children communally. Over time, the combined forces of technology and neoliberal policies took hold. Japanese society began to emulate the West, becoming first nuclear (father at work, mother raising the children), then atomised (individualistic) and the first ones to fall through the cracks seem to be the working class single mothers and their children. The startling fact is that one in seven children in Japan grows up in a household that is below the poverty line. We learn this and more through McAvoy’s seamless incorporation of knowledge constructed by academic researchers on the subject matter.
Other poignant interviews in the documentary reveal how the complexity of what many respect about Japanese culture — patience and pride — are the very things that prevent women from demanding their rights.
For a long time I have loved the animist cosmologies and ontologies within Japanese culture that remain from its original Ainu inhabitants; the ones which do not separate nature from culture. I love the reverent aesthetics of presence and wabi sabi that come from Buddhism. I fantasise about ‘ma’, or emptiness; the spaces between words that allow for an intimacy that I have never found in a Western culture that is suspicious of silence. But films like McAvoy’s challenge my blind valorisation of Japan. In fact, too, this film has deepened my love in the way that Leonard Cohen sings about: there is a crack in everything. It’s how the light gets in.
For the sake of these women and children (and their children, because it's an intergenerational issue), policymakers should also see the light and intervene on this pressing social justice issue. But beyond that, failure to do so will also precipitate this great nations’ fall on its own sword as the current situation quite obviously disincentivises procreating - to answer my question above. A country with such an ageing crisis simply cannot afford to not address women’s working conditions, childcare and domestic violence. Perhaps ultimately it is a kind of reckoning on capitalism - an in-built detonator or the ultimate form of passive resistance? But with children as canon fodder, governments and private enterprise must do better.
*real names have been withheld to protect anonymity