‘Like Father, Like Son’: In the blood

January 16, 2014

like father

Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Like Father, Like Son” is a delicate but daunting tale, one whose quietly self-contained story manages to churn great waves of emotional complexity.

The set-up is a popular literary and cinematic plot contrivance: the switched-at-birth trope. But it is acted out in movingly stark relief in this story that also encompasses notions of nature-vs.-nurture, the distance between social classes and what fatherhood really means.

The story centers on Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama), an architect who is also a striver, in the strongest tradition of modern Japan. He works what seem to be endless hours, sparing little time for his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) or his son, Keita (Keita Ninomiya). Not that he doesn’t have expectations for Keita; indeed, far from it.

The film starts, in fact, with the family at an admission interview for an expensive preschool for the 6-year-old. Ryota has his young son on a regimen of piano lessons and other extracurriculars; the kid seems to have nary a spare minute in the schedule his father has set. It’s all encompassed in a shiny, seemingly comfortable lifestyle in a spotless apartment well-situated in the city.

But a phone call changes everything: The hospital where Keita was born informs them that, in fact, Keita and another infant had been switched at birth by a nurse (whose agenda had nothing to do with either family personally). Now what?

Their counterparts are the Saiki family: Father Yudai (Lily Franky) runs a suburban appliance (and repair) shop, a happily shaggy existence that includes two other children beside Ryusei (Hwang Sho-gen), the child who was exchanged with Yudai’s son. They meet and let the kids play together, while arranging a temporary swap in anticipation of the permanent one.

Most of the interior journey here belongs to Ryota, who has been what seems like a distant father (though differences in culture between Japan and the U.S. in this regard cannot be overlooked). Yet when he coolly contemplates how preferable it would be to have his biological son to raise, he finds himself emotionally torn because of that personal bond with Keita. And when he does spend time with Ryusei, the boy is carefree and undisciplined – in other words, a little kid – unlike the well-trained Keita.

To his credit, Koreeda refuses to give us simple solutions. Ryota (and the rest of the characters) do what is expected of them but react in unexpected ways. The film never tells the audience how to feel, letting us figure out what is going on in Ryota’s head and heart through the subtle but moving performance by Fukuyama.

“Like Father, Like Son” already has been bought by Hollywood for a remake. But this film is too nuanced and understated for any studio to get right. See this version before someone makes an inferior copy that gets more attention.

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