/ |

New drama addresses the politics of surrogate pregnancy in Japan

by Philip Brasor

Keiko Matsuzaka started out as a glamorous ingenue who sang and acted. Her career didn’t differ greatly from those of other late Showa Era (1926-89) idols, except that she gave in to the unflattering changes her body underwent after entering middle age. Most other actresses who are still working in their 50s try desperately to hold on to their youthful appeal.

Matsuzaka’s fuller, dowdier figure makes perfect sense in the current six-part NHK drama series “Madonna Verde” (NHK-G, Tues., 10 p.m.), where she plays a 55-year-old widow who agrees to be a surrogate mother for her daughter’s child.

Matsuzaka’s Midori is the mother to end all mothers: Selfless, intuitive, cheerful to the point of being infantile. At one point she reveals to another character what she is doing for her daughter, who lost her own baby after undergoing surgery for uterine cancer, and the character declares her a “madonna”; in other words, the original virgin babymaker. And that’s exactly what Midori (meaning “green,” or, in Latin, verde) is. Having been made pregnant through the implantation of a fertilized egg, she achieves the hyper-glow of expecting motherhood without all that messy sex.

Messy sex, or sex of any kind, is something this drama avoids at all costs, a narrative decision that may be a function of the public broadcaster’s infamous sense of decorum. Based on a novel by the physician Takeru Kaido, “Madonna Verde” is a kind of sequel to his best-selling mystery “Gene Waltz,” a big budget movie version of which came out in February. In essence, “Madonna” opens up the mystery at the heart of the earlier book and with the same central characters, which makes it less a sequel than an alternate take on the same tale.

The main character in “Gene Waltz” is the daughter, Dr. Rie Sonezaki, a young obstetrician-gynecologist who offers fertility treatments her medical colleagues don’t always approve of. Both novels exploit for dramatic effect Japan’s plummeting birthrate and the concurrent paucity of physicians entering the ob-gyn field. Rie is seen as a crusader who wants to not only help women realize their dreams of becoming mothers but change Japan’s sclerotic old-boy medical culture.

The plot revolves around a small maternity clinic where Rie, an assistant professor at a prestigious university hospital, works part time. One of her patients at the clinic is a pregnant middle-aged woman. Soon the hospital administration hears rumors that the clinic is carrying out a surrogate mother program, which, while not illegal, has not been approved by Japan’s professional ob-gyn community. Rie’s supervisor, who is also the man who operated on her, is asked by the hospital administration to investigate the matter, and he discovers that Rie is the person in charge of the secret surrogacy procedure.

Those who plan to see or read “Gene Waltz” may prefer not knowing any more. In that story, Midori was more of a plot device than a character, but in “Madonna Verde” she’s the whole show, a one-woman advertisement for the joys and heartbreak of pregnancy. Though the story retains the author’s critical view of Japan’s medical system, the direction and acting in NHK’s dramatization focus more intently on the material’s sentimental possibilities. Every character is turned into a symbol whose motives are invariably comments on a society where “maternity” has lost its primal and spiritual significance.

Rie embodies this theme. Though her life work is to help infertile women become mothers, her personal investment is presented as being academic, thus earning her the professional nickname “Cool Witch.” In “Madonna Verde,” we are first led to believe this attitude is a front since Rie has to hide the fact that the baby she is helping bring to term is actually her own and that the patient is her mother. However, when Midori, who agrees to carry the child because she believes her daughter seriously wants a baby of her own, starts to wonder if Rie’s interest in the procedure is in fact based more on her desire to “challenge the system,” she turns against her. Unfortunately, the actress cast as Rie, NHK stalwart Ryoko Kuninaka, is incapable of conveying this conundrum, which is central to the story’s impact. Rie seems more baffled than conspiring.

The drama’s confusions may have more to do with the fact that it was written by a man. Kaido overcompensates for any inadvertent gender biases he holds by fetishizing procreation to the point where it seems less about making babies than about isolating the feminine essence. The world (read: Japan) is presented as a place where the odds are stacked against you if you want to have a child, or even if you want to help someone have a child.

The other three women Rie is treating at the clinic have their knotty natal problems, too: A young punk who wants an abortion against her better judgment; a forty-something housewife with a history of miscarriages; and an antiques dealer who believes her work is compromising her pregnancy. The clinic itself is already tainted by scandal because the son of the founder is being sued after one of his patients died in childbirth.

“Madonna Verde” inflates institutional concerns about the ethics of surrogacy into an all-purpose illustration of why Japan’s birthrate is falling. It advocates more reproductive choices for infertile women but doesn’t address the social and economic considerations that make having children these days a momentous decision rather than a biological imperative. Kaido’s implication that male arrogance is at the root of the problem deserves attention, but his (or NHK’s) insistence that the so-called maternal instinct is universal and inviolable may have the opposite effect of the one that’s intended. Watching the well-ripened Matsuzaka acting all adolescently bubbly over her immaculate conception may be enough to turn anyone off the prospect of parenthood.

Philip Brasor blogs at philipbrasor.com