Nature in the nurture
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