Kore-eda is in my very humble opinion the most sensitive and humane filmmaker working in Japan today. His body of work is relatively small, but each film has been the product of a quiet and unassuming story-telling genius that rather than exploits people’s ugliness imbues them with the possibility of hope and redemption. He plumbs emotional depths in a way that exposes the human soul as achingly beautiful; his insight is both gentle and unflinching, and his deft, minimalist handling of his subject matter — in the case of Like Father, Like Son, the question of what defines parentage and how the family unit is impacted by it — is in every way that matters the stuff of cinematic perfection.
Six years after the birth of their first son, upper-middle class couple Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama, Perfect Love, Suspect X) and Midori Nonomiya (Ono Machiko, The Taste of Tea) are contacted by the hospital where Midori gave birth, only to be told that Keita (Keita Ninomiya) is not in fact their biological son and that he was swapped at birth with another child. You don’t have to be a parent to be able to imagine the almost instantaneous fallout from that piece of news, not the least of which is whether this makes the child the Nonomiyas have raised and loved for six years any less their son than one who actually shares their DNA. Midori is devastated, as any mother would be, but she adores her son and the matter of blood relationships don’t really factor in. Ryota however finds in this news an explanation as to why Keita is not really living up to his somewhat strict and austere expectations. Oh, he doesn’t seem to love him less, but he has a distant relationship with him at best and sees his son’s underachieving and sensitive nature as a flaw that now has a logical source.
The opportunity to meet the other family that have been raising their biological son doesn’t produce the easy answers Ryota might have hoped for, however. Yudai Saiki (Lily Franky, Afro Tanaka) and his wife Yukari (Yôko Maki, Princess Blade, Kamikaze Girls) are solidly working class, with three other children and a humble business in electronic repairs, and their own non-biological son Ryusei (Shogen Hwang) is just a normal kid in a happy family. The children get on famously when they meet, and Midori and Yukari can readily relate to each other’s suffering, but for Ryota the other family’s ways and means embarrass on multiple levels and he is cool and standoffish in response. The more he gets to know the Saikis, the more he starts to consider a different course to the hospital’s suggestion of swapping the children back, and when that suggestion naturally doesn’t fly (not even with his wife), the families begin a tentative weekend exchange trial until the decision is finally made to swap their sons permanently. Ryota and Midori’s struggle to accept the logic of the situation and the social expectations upon them starts to deteriorate in the face of needs they haven’t considered – those of their sons.
If you’ve seen any of Kore-eda’s other films, you won’t be surprised to hear that this subject is in no way controversially treated. The director doesn’t look at this contentiously, and he could have so easily done so; instead his focus is always on the emotional landscapes of his characters, on repairing relationships both internal and external rather than severing them, of making a kind of emotional sense of the world. Although there is a number of things going on here, specifically the film is about how the situation reflects on who Ryota is inside and how his own relationship with his father has shaped him into the man he is now. This is described no more clearly than in the urban environments he inhabits – precise, ordered spaces, carefully constructed and controlled but lacking any kind of warmth. Even with a family, he is an isolated and lonely man, a product of his own upbringing. The idea that he might be making the same mistakes with his own son only serves to add poignancy to his own internal struggles.
The Saikis’ environment in contrast is chaotic and disordered, but the spaces are full of life. They take their kids camping and kite-flying and let them play outside. They eat take out and let them run amok in play groups, and they open themselves up to Ryota and Midori in a way that, despite all their lack, paints them as arguably far better people in some respects. But Kore-eda avoids judgement even here. Sure, the Saikis perhaps can’t provide for their kids in the way that the Nonomiyas can, but they’re rich in other things, while the Nonomiyas, comfortable economically, are poor in their own ways.
It takes the innocent interactions of the Nonomiyas’ biological son – virtually a stranger to them – to bring Ryota out of his relationship shell, and the final blow to his self-imposed emotional exile is delivered with such exquisite timing that there probably weren’t too many dry eyes left in the full film festival screening I attended. And it would be utterly remiss of me at this point to not mention the director’s other remarkable skill – working with children. There is something so precious and immediate about the juvenile performances in a Kore-eda film, and Like Father is no different. He doesn’t use children to callously play on the viewer’s heart strings but instead positions them in a way that reflects the adults around them, and presents us with the world through a child’s eyes once more – not necessarily full of wonder and magic but magical in its honest simplicity all the same.
Like Father, Like Son — or its more literal translation from the Japanese, Then to Become a Father — is a film that explores territory on the levels so meaningful that it’s impossible not to be moved by it, and difficult not to feel enriched by it, whether you’re a parent, a child, or perhaps, sometimes still both.