What We Know

By Tim Winterstein

Imagine having a six-year-old son, who has just been admitted into a prestigious elementary school, who seems happy and well-adjusted. Then imagine that you receive a phone call from the hospital where he was born, telling you that six years ago, there was some kind of mistake and your child isn’t your biological child. Your biological child has actually been raised by other parents, just as you’ve raised their child. That’s the premise of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru); 2013, for rent on Amazon Prime).

As it would be if you found yourself in such a situation, there really is no resolving it. You can’t go back. It can’t be undone. Whatever one might choose to do in such a situation, someone (or everyone) is going to be wounded. It’s not a matter of putting things “right,” as in simply putting the boys back with their biological parents. So Kore-eda touches on the question of nature versus nurture, and the outcomes seem firmly on the side of nurture. The fathers, in particular, have affected the sons they’ve raised, but the issue is compounded by class differences, expectations, and the effects their own fathers had on them.

Clearly, it is Ryota, Keita’s father, who feels the situation most acutely. His habits, his work ethic, his fathering, his decisions—all are thrown into doubt in the aftermath of finding out that Keita isn’t his biological son. And Yudai, Ryusei’s father, seems at first to be cast as sort of a deadbeat who would rather have fun with his children than provide for them. He seems more interested in the hospital’s settlement than in the devastation wrought by the news. In fact, however, he has insights into the vocation of fatherhood that Ryota, with all his financial stability and provision for his family, doesn’t seem to have grasped.

Six years of ignorance appear blissful, especially in hindsight. But once you have a crucial piece of knowledge, there is no going back. Others—perhaps those who did not know, but discover that they were adopted—have experienced the displacement that must occur for those who find that their existence is different from what they understood it to be. Though (maybe) not as severe, it happened to the brothers in Three Identical Strangers when they find out they have (identical!) siblings whom they had never met.

Knowledge does indeed change reality, even though it may be hard to put words to the phenomenon. What is it to discover that one’s place is not actually one’s place? It’s a challenge to a person’s essential identity because, at least at six, one’s entire understanding of the world has been filtered through a limited circle of people and the experiences they have facilitated. To have that undone would be literally unsettling. And consider the alternative: if children were related by blood to parents other than those whom they know, and they did not find out, what effects would that have on their lives? Would their biology affect their nurture?

What is blood worth? is a theme that Kore-eda explores over and over from different angles. Here, one character even says that considering things according to blood relationships is an outdated idea. But is it really worth nothing? Why is it, then, that some adopted children, at least, feel a compelling drive to seek out their biological parents? Why do people care about their genealogy or send in DNA tests to find out their ancestry? There’s something intangible that connects us with those with whom we share blood that doesn’t connect us in the same way with others. Intangible, but not impermeable; nurture isn’t nothing either.

Neither Like Father, Like Son, nor any study, nor any argument can say definitively that nurture absolutely trumps nature or vice-versa. And the wounds that are created in this life, even the unknown ones, cannot be undone. (Especially, as in one of the film’s twists, the intentional wounds whose consequences cannot be foreseen.) They can only be healed. And Kore-eda explores that as sensitively and tenderly as any filmmaker. There is no resolution, or even a firm decision, in the end of the film. But there might be healing and a tentative move forward. And unlike the endings of stories so prevalent that they have their own name—fairy tale endings—in some situations, the ending of Like Father, Like Son is the best we can do.