In modern American society, we assume that life will be better for most kids after they graduate from the K-12 school system. We mock those who peak in high school because the rest of us (which is most of us at some point) resent them so much that it’s wonderful to assume your former bully’s life went downhill after they bullied you. Despite being about timeless themes, I Was Born, But… posits that the opposite is true:the schoolyard is more fair and just than adulthood.
I Was Born, But… sneaks up on you, succeeding as a winning comedy about childhood for its first two-thirds or so before shit gets deep. Two brothers move into a new town where they’re bullied by a gang of local boys, which leads to the brothers cutting class but faking their calligraphy assignments in a nearby field. One of my favorite details about foreign films is seeing the same touchstones experienced differently in different cultures, so it was charming to see the boys ask a man to forge the E for Excellent their father required them to obtain in calligraphy class. Because Japanese uses a different alphabet entirely, the E they forged isn’t even an E as I know it, which presents different forging complications.
SPOILERS from here on out:
Eventually the boys’ father finds out the boys are playing hooky and forces them to attend school, where they soon win their peers’ acceptance on their merits: fighting, speed, and cleverness. The fun stops when the gang of boys, including the brothers, see their fathers and colleagues at a local hangout, where the businessmen are watching the brothers’ father acting as the team funnyman to suck up to his boss. To make matters worse, they discover their dad’s boss is the father of one of their former bullies.
The brothers go home and question their father about this injustice and he responds honestly to them. He’s not the boss because the boss has more money than he does. This crushes their tiny worldviews as they learn the world isn’t fair. They respond with a somewhat hilarious hunger strike.
This hunger strike struck me as at once totally unreasonable and absolutely understandable. On the one hand, their dad can’t help that he’s not rich and it’s not like this family lives in poverty. They’re solidly middle class. While their dad needs to keep his job, they’re not wanting for necessities.
On the other hand, the innocence of these boys has just been shattered for the first time in their entire lives. This new lesson sits in stark contrast with what they learned in school that day, where they had triumphed against adversity due to their merits. At school, the boys conquered the spawn of the man their father performs for. Now they find out they were doomed from the start just because of who bore them?!
Capitalist societies like the one these characters live in pretend to be merit-based, and their existence relies on their citizens them believing that they can climb the ranks no matter what family they were born into. But the boys find the society their find father operating in is determined by his class . Instead of striving to advance, his sons see him humiliate himself for his boss’ amusement just to stay in his good graces. In coming-of-age tales like this one, your father is your future and these boys got a huge blow directly following what may end up being the greatest moment of their school days. I Was Born, But… contrasts the the myths adults build for children about what’s possible with the reality adults face.