by Kathie Smith
Like Father, Like Son, the most recent movie by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, examines the heartbreaking trials of two families who find out, six years after the fact, that their boys were switched at birth. The public and private turmoil that slowly supervenes calls into question a maelstrom of values on parenting, class, success, and, most importantly, what it means to love another person—whether husband, wife, father, mother, or child, who may or may not be your actual biological offspring. These themes strike a maudlin pose, but Kore-eda wields a pen and a camera with a disarming sincerity. Like his 2004 film Nobody Knows, Kore-eda takes a tabloid headline and expounds upon it with his unique abilities, gently cradling melodrama with humanistic hands.
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Producers: Kaoru Matsuzaki, Hijiri Taguchi, Tatsuro Hatanaka, Chihiro Kameyama, Tom Yoda
Writer: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Cinematographer: Mikiya Takimoto
Editor: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Music: Takeshi Matsubara, Junichi Matsumoto, Takashi Mori
Cast: Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono, Yoko Maki, Lily Franky, Keita Ninomiya, Shogen Hwang, Jun Fubuki, Jun Kunimura, Kirin Kiki, Isao Natsuyagi
Premiere: May 18, 2013 – Cannes
US Theatrical Release: January 17, 2014
US Distributor: Sundance Selects
We first meet the Nonomiya family as their 6-year-old son, Keita (Keita Nimomiya), is interviewing for a private elementary school, a competitive process in which his father, Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama), and mother, Midorino (Machiko Ono), have invested a fair amount of time, energy, and pre-schooling to ensure, if not demand, success. Giving their son what they believe to be the tools necessary for a zealous and prosperous future has, quite obviously, been an objective from day one. Their conservative views are represented not only in their loving but rigorous child rearing but also in their family structure that has Ryota serving as the patriarchal provider and Midorino submitting as homemaking caregiver. This solid familial foundation—one that feels like it has been built over generations—is rocked to its core when they find out that Keita is someone else’s son.
The hospital mishap brings them together with the Saikis, a family of five whose eldest son, Ryusei (Shogen Hwang), is the other half of the fateful swap. The Saikis are a family of lesser means and lower ambitions—Yudai (Lily Franky) apathetically runs a small storefront and his wife Yukari (Yoko Maki) works in a small restaurant—but they have their own freeform methods of doting on their three young children. The hospital, wanting to move on from their embarrassing mistake, pressures the two families to make a decision sooner rather than later, but neither is prepared to lose the child they have raised for six years nor are they ready to turn their back on their own flesh and blood.
Much of Like Father, Like Son’s focus falls on the psychological shoulders of Ryota whose arrogance and latent discrimination against the lower class Saikis allow him to believe that he alone can make the determination. His ego might be the driving force behind blaming his wife for not knowing better or wanting to raise both boys, but it’s the bitter relationship with his own father that haunts him as he tries to assess the bond he has built with Keita and the one he wants to foster with Ryusei.
In an affecting scene, Ryota goes to the house of the nurse who somewhat dubiously admits she switched the boys on purpose because she was jealous of the Nonomiya’s happiness. (The courtroom plays a small role in the movie, but you can’t help but suspect that there is a corporate payoff for the woman willing to take the blame.) Ryota wants to pridefully return a cash apology and scorn the woman who has destroyed his family. But before he can finish, a boy, who we know to be her step-son, comes out and stands directly in front of Ryota. Ryota condescendingly says, “You’re not involved.” To which the boy replies, “ I am involved. She’s my mother.” You can see the wheels spin in Ryota’s head, asking himself: Would either of his potential sons do this for him? Would he have done something similar for his mother? Or his father?
Kore-eda has a panache working with children as seen in his last film I Wish (2011), which he co-scripted with his young stars, but the nuanced performances in Like Father, Like Son are found in the adults and most keenly felt in Ono’s portrayal of Midorino. Her inward struggle with guilt and heartache is compounded by her silent awareness of her place in the family—a role that she briefly entertains escaping from with Keita. A gesture of compassion from Yukari, in an act of maternal understanding, makes you realize how emotionally vacant Ryota has been towards Midorino.
Life Father, Like Son concludes not so much with a resolution but with the understanding that, after the year depicted in the movie, an emotional chasm has been quietly conquered. Nature and nurture are both powerful forces, but, as Kore-eda has shown over his past nine features, so is an open heart. With Like Father, Like Son, he finds a tender middle ground between the lighter than air I Wish and the melancholic Still Walking (2008) while maintaining a subdued intricacy—a hallmark of this highly undervalued filmmaker.