Na­ture in the nur­ture

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews - Evan Wil­liams

WE have all read ac­counts of ba­bies be­ing mixed up at birth and given to the wrong moth­ers — usu­ally the re­sult of hospi­tal er­ror. Tabloids and tele­vi­sion soaps thrive on such sto­ries, whether real or fic­tional, and for many writ­ers they are the stuff of com­edy.

Gil­bert and Sul­li­van used the mixed baby idea in two of their comic op­eras, HMS Pi­nafore and The Gon­doliers. Mark Twain, in The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wil­son (1893), had black and white ba­bies switched at birth and reared in dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ments. In Os­car Wilde’s play The Im­por­tance of Be­ing Earnest, a baby is fa­mously swapped with the man­u­script of a three-vol­ume novel; and Hol­ly­wood, never far be­hind, came up with the 2010 com­edy The Switch, in which sperm donors get their sam­ples mixed with un­for­tu­nate re­sults for Jennifer Anis­ton.

In real life, of course, the con­se­quences of such mishaps can be heart-rend­ing. Four years ago, a Catholic hospi­tal in Gee­long had to apol­o­gise for a baby mix-up, though the er­ror was spotted within a few days. Aus­tralia’s most cel­e­brated case in­volved a sin­gle mother, Joan Mur­ray, who worked as a bus con­duc­tor and fought a long court bat­tle in the 1950s to re­gain cus­tody of her son, who had been lov­ingly reared by the Mace fam­ily, the baby’s adop­tive par­ents. The case pro­voked in­tense pub­lic feel­ing, much of it driven by class prej­u­dice and at­ti­tudes to tra­di­tional moral­ity. If we’d had talk­back ra­dio in those days, civil war might have bro­ken out at any mo­ment. The words “Mace Baby Case” fit­ted neatly into head­lines, and the story seemed to run for­ever.

Ja­panese news­pa­pers re­ported an ex­tra­or­di­nary story in 1988. What be­came known as the Af­fair of the Four Aban­doned Chil­dren of Nishi-Sug­amo (too much of a mouth­ful for English tabloids, but no doubt man­age­able in Ja­panese) con­cerned four young chil­dren aban­doned by their mother in a small apart­ment. For six months they sur­vived on their own, cook­ing, wash­ing and play­ing among them­selves.

The case in­spired Ja­panese film­maker Koreeda Hirokazu to make No­body Knows, a beau­ti­ful film about child­hood and fam­ily life, sub­jects that reg­u­larly en­gage him. I wrote at the time that Kore-eda had told his story with­out senti- men­tal­ity or con­trivance, and with a lovely mix­ture of com­pas­sion and de­tach­ment.

The same is true — and I’m get­ting to the point at last — of his new film, Like Fa­ther, Like

Son, about a Ja­panese cou­ple who dis­cover that the boy they have been rear­ing for six years, and love dearly, is not their bi­o­log­i­cal child.

Like Fa­ther, Like Son un­folds with mar­vel­lous re­straint and del­i­cacy. Af­ter all, a story whose barest el­e­ments test the lim­its of hu­man emo­tion hardly needs much em­bel­lish­ment. Koreeda de­liv­ers the oc­ca­sional plot twist — no­tably in the scene when a hospi­tal em­ployee owns up to her mis­take — but lit­tle is made of it. No di­rec­tor has a keener eye than Kore-eda for the fab­ric of real life, the minu­tiae of ev­ery­day ex­pe­ri­ence. His film en­gages us as deeply as it does the play­ers in the story. In a strange way — though it may seem trite to say so — it is as if we were liv­ing these events our­selves.

Ry­ota (Fukuyama Masa­haru) is a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man, hap­pily mar­ried to Mi­dori (Ono Machiko). Their world is one of mod­est af­flu­ence and com­fort. Ry­ota puts in long hours at work and watches his choles­terol level, and is too pre­oc­cu­pied with his job to spend much time with six-year-old Keita (played with dis­arm­ing charm by Keita Ni­nomiya). But noth­ing is too good for the boy. The hard­est thing is get­ting him to prac­tise the piano.

When Mi­dori re­ceives a phone call from the hospi­tal where Keita was born, ask­ing them to come to a meet­ing, they sense some­thing is wrong. At the hospi­tal their fears are con­firmed. Keita is not their son. Their bi­o­log­i­cal child has been reared by the easy­go­ing Yukari (Maki Yoko) and her hus­band Yudai (Lily Franky), a cou­ple con­sid­er­ably lower on the so­cial scale than Mi­dori and Ry­ota, if not ex­actly work­ing­class. The fam­i­lies are brought to­gether and the chil­dren ex­changed — at first for short vis­its, later for good — with­out be­ing told the truth.

The fam­i­lies face cruel dilem­mas. Do no­tions of right or en­ti­tle­ment have any place in their de­ci­sions? Is what is best for the par­ents necess-

THE CHIL­DREN ARE EX­CHANGED WITH­OUT BE­ING TOLD THE TRUTH

ar­ily best for the chil­dren? And who re­ally knows what is best for any­one? Are the bonds forged by six years of lov­ing care stronger than those of blood? Which is more de­ci­sive: na­ture or nur­ture (that old ques­tion again)?

Keita’s par­ents are more trou­bled than the boy. Mi­dori won­ders how a good mother could fail to recog­nise her own child. Ry­ota wor­ries that he has never truly bonded with Keita, who be­comes dearer to him when they con­front the prospect of sep­a­ra­tion. There’s a wrench­ing mo­ment when he tells Keita that his new dad loves him more than he does. Grop­ing for a so­lu­tion, he pro­poses that he and Mi­dori have cus­tody of both boys — an idea spurned as in­sult­ing by Yudai.

I could never quite shake off the feel­ing that de­spite all ev­i­dence to the con­trary, Keita re­ally is Ry­ota’s nat­u­ral child. We know he’s not, but he seems to be. And isn’t that the point? Ry­ota him­self feels that way, and if the film is meant to per­suade us that nur­ture trumps na­ture in the end, Kore-eda has surely suc­ceeded. We are as con­flicted as the char­ac­ters.

It may bother some view­ers that the story is told en­tirely from the point of view of one of the fa­thers, as if the feel­ings of moth­ers were of less im­por­tance. But by fo­cus­ing on just one of these re­la­tion­ships, Kore-eda gives the film its power and in­ten­sity.

My own so­lu­tion — un­suited, per­haps, to a cul­ture more pa­tri­ar­chal than our own — would be for both fam­i­lies to live to­gether. But in a con­flict em­bit­tered by pride, nat­u­ral ri­valry and that great­est of Ja­panese in­dig­ni­ties — loss of face — it’s a so­lu­tion no one men­tions. I think the chil­dren would have liked it.

So far as we can judge act­ing in an­other lan­guage, the per­for­mances seem to me im­pec­ca­ble. Kore-eda is one of a host of Ja­panese film­mak­ers who never cease to en­chant me. I am think­ing of Yo­jiro Takita ( Departures), Takeshi Ki­tano ( Za­to­ichi) and, that most sublime of an­i­ma­tion artists, Hayao Miyazaki ( The Wind Rises).

A fi­nal thought: when Keita goes to live with his new par­ents, Yukari asks him: “Did you know that Spi­der-Man is ac­tu­ally a spi­der?” Yukari is more of a fun dad that Ry­ota and it’s fair to as­sume Keita has never been taken to a Spi­der-Man movie. What comes as a mild sur­prise is that Spi­der-Man is as much a part of Ja­panese pop­u­lar cul­ture as he is of ours. Ja­panese au­di­ences will no doubt be flock­ing to The Amaz­ing Spi­der-Man 2 this weekend. Some things — like parental love and Hol­ly­wood block­busters — have uni­ver­sal ap­peal.

Two very dif­fer­ent fam­i­lies come to terms with the fact a hospi­tal mis­take saw their boys swapped at birth in

Like Fa­ther, Like Son

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