Like Father, Like Son (Cert PG)
1 Disc (Distributor: Arrow Films) Running time: 121 minutes approx.
Successful architect Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) and his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) are registering their six-year-old son Keita (Keita Ninomiya) for primary school when an anomaly with Keita’s blood test raises some concern. The hospital then breaks the shocking news that Keita isn’t their biological son. Switched a birth by a depressed nurse, their real son Ryusei Saiki (Shôgen Hwang) has been raised instead by Yudai (Lily Franky) and Yukari (Maki Yoko), a humble family with two other younger children from across town. Rota is keen to rectify this but struggles to choose between the son he raised or the son he legitimately sired.
The family unit is a favourite theme for Japanese writers and filmmakers, providing the legendary Yasujiro Ozu with a platform for his most highly regarded works. Modern Japanese filmmakers have picked up the baton passed down by Ozu, with Hirokazu Kore-eda currently sprinting ahead with his astute observations on the subject. His last film, the sublime I Wish, was about uniting a family, this latest outing essentially reverses this by ostensibly creating a division within two families, while pondering what truly makes a parent – blood ties or the life you give them?
It’s interesting that the focus of the story is on the fathers’ concerns and not the mothers’. While they are by no means secondary players in this tale and are just as deeply affected as their spouses, one would assume the nine months they spent carrying the child one dictates that their emotional ties are the stronger and most obvious for exploration. Having said that, with many films having already covered this particular angle we should applaud Kore-eda for taking the opposite track, yielding the deeply moving results we see here.
The story is largely told from the point of view of Ryota, working long hours but proud of the flush apartment and other material luxuries they paid for, including piano lessons for Keita, which he clearly doesn’t enjoy. When the news arrives from the hospital, his first reaction is “that explains it” referring to Keita’s lack of musical and creative aptitude. The hospital mandarins suggest that the two families get to know each other, the inevitable chalk and cheese dichotomy immediately coming into play.
In contrast Yudai Saiki is a slightly older, unkempt looking owner of a small appliance shop, whose wife Yukari might wear the trousers in their household but he elicits nothing but love and joy from his kids. Their interest was seeking compensation from the hospital, not even considering the exchange Ryota had in mind. Midori is less sure but quietly goes along with her husband, eventually becoming the first to crack, angrily questioning how Ryota can simply dismiss the six years they spent raising Keita.
Because of their young age, how the boys themselves feel about this isn’t really taken into consideration; like good Japanese boys they do what they are told and participate in the frequent exchange programmes between parents despite not understanding why. For Keita, the humble lifestyle of the Saiki household – sharing baths, getting to run around with the younger siblings, eating modest home cooked food and having someone who can repair toys – the grass seems to be greener on the other side. Ryusei finds bathing alone in a large tub lonely, expensive meat hard to eat and being cooped up in a flat a tad boring. Having a demanding parent like Ryota doesn’t help matters either.
The pivotal moment which highlights the differences between the two families comes when they all pose for a group photo – Ryota, Midori and Keita are standing up straight and conformed with fixed smiles; the Saikis are all bundled on top of each other in a multi-headed but happy hug.
It’s an admittedly conventional tale but Kore-eda tells it in a natural and humane way, reaching deep to the core of this thought provoking issue to investigate it from all sides. The key is in how he lets the story play out through the characters, who dictate the scenes more than the script itself does. They may be familiar tropes but each one is well rounded and credible, with their own personalities and quirks adding to their individual and collective developments over the two hour run time.
The adult leads are responsible for carrying the burden of the film’s dramatic weight and do not disappoint, each one clearly in tune with their characters but they share the spotlight with their younger co-stars. One of Kore-eda’s clear strengths, which most directors would do well to learn from, is how he lets kids be kids in his films. Usually they are mentored, shaped and moulded into being little actors, trying to force cuteness onto the audience; Kore-eda chooses his child actors well and lets them get on with it, and they reward him by showing no signs of artifice at all while remembering their lines.
As ever, Kore-eda refrains from indulging in excessive presentation techniques, keeping everything low key and relying on the cast and the cameras. The end result is nonetheless touching and explorative, providing no answers to the debate as to what make a father, but puts across a compelling case for both sides. The authenticity of the scenes between the Saiki kids and their parents will arguably sway those who think blood ties are incidental; I doubt this was intentional but as Yudai is keen to point out to Ryota, “Money can’t by you everything”.
The strength of a film such as Like Father, Like Son lies in its ability to touch the viewer deep inside, injecting a feeling of warmth without resorting to cheap sentimentality and forced lachrymose drama. Kore-eda lets his stories and his characters breath and the end result being another superb slice-of-life drama that speaks from the heart.
Ratings – ****
Man In Black