An important motif in Picture Bride is the theme of dreams versus reality. Hana, a picture bride, sails from Japan to the United States. She is eager to escape the drudgery of farm work in her village. She dreams of a happy future, full of promise and adventure, and she imagines her husband as a dashing young lover. As she lands on the shores of the West Coast, her fantasies fade away, and she comes face-to-face with the realities of life. Her husband, Taro, is much older than her and does not resemble his picture. He is not the romantic partner that Hana hoped for, and is not too successful either. Each day she faces a new challenge, whether it is racial prejudice, a close-minded community, or a strained relationship with her daughter.
Another motif is marital conflict. Hana realizes that she cannot love Taro. But Taro is a good man who works hard, protects his family, and stays true to Hana. Despite a lack of love, the couple develops a deep friendship. Hana falls in love with Kiyoshi. Kiyoshi is a handsome man who flirts and flatters Hana, and is closer to her in age. Hana does not want to hurt Taro's feelings. She represses her emotions and decides to look upon Kiyoshi as a friend.