Like Father, Like Son
Given its fraught switched-at-birth subject matter, audiences may feel compelled to bring fistfuls of Kleenex to screenings of Hirokazu Kore-eda's "Like Father, Like Son," the Jury Prize winner at last year's Cannes Film Festival.
The Japanese writer/director maintains a narratively cool tone right up until the end of his film, when he finally unleashes a well-prepared volley of emotionally charged images; yes, at that point, tissues may be required. Obviously, of course, not everyone will succumb; but for a lot of us -- children, parents, or both -- Kore-eda strikes at something very deep.
In the film, two couples from widely spaced rungs on Japan's socioeconomic ladder receive the devastating news that, for the last six years, they have been raising some other couple's biological son. The chastened messengers, a group of lawsuit-expecting hospital administrators, bluntly state that the couples should swap children as soon as possible, for the benefit of everyone involved. They are disturbingly practiced in offering this advice, which they assert is always followed and essentially holds that blood is more important than experience.
Of the aggrieved parents, only the workaholic Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama), a successful Tokyo architect and taciturn striver, is readily given to this sort of thinking. In fact, the dispassionate Ryota seemingly welcomes finding out that he does not share a DNA bond with his putative son Keita (the adorably sweet-faced Keita Ninomiya), since it provides an explanation for the boy's sensitive nature, which is entirely foreign to him. While Ryota sees his family's unraveling as an opportunity to set everything right, by acquiring the son his intellect and accomplishments deserve, his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) agonizes over the apparently preordained and, to her, heartrending decision that they must eventually make. She also must contend with the despicable criticism from Ryota and others that she failed her family by not instinctively realizing that Keita was not the baby she carried in her womb.
In addition to his shortcomings as a husband and father, Ryota, who has nurtured Keita with all the warmth of a science project, is also an unapologetic snob. To him, Yukari and Yudai (Yôko Maki and Lily Franky), the working-class suburban couple raising his actual offspring Ryusei (Shôgen Hwang) are nothing more than rubes, content to simply scrape by in life with their two other young children in tow. Fukuyama, primarily known for his singing and songwriting career in Japan, does a nice job of conveying how Ryota is viscerally offended by their perceived backwardness.
Although at its heart Kore-eda's film is a meditation on parenthood -- with, as its title indicates, a much heavier interest in the male side of the equation -- what makes it special is how the filmmaker weaves in other issues, especially class and gender, to show the many social factors that influence the type of love a child receives. This complexity, as a result, prevents Ryota from ever becoming a monstrous, or even wholly unsympathetic, figure, because Kore-eda's efforts subtly make the audience aware of the conflicting cultural pressures that are warring within his mind. For example, having himself exactingly followed what he thought was the inviolable Japanese script for ultramodern success, Ryota wants to set his child on the same course; but now, not only are the words to that script changing, the goal of being ultramodern is also perhaps no longer desirable. Even his heart-attack-surviving, personal-life-neglecting boss is telling the nonplussed Ryota to spend more time with his family.
To top it all off, after several meetings and sleepovers in preparation for the exchange of children, Yudai, a happy-go-lucky shop owner and tinkerer, wins the affections of both Keita and Ryusei, because he likes to play with children and can fix their toys. Or, in other words, he interacts with them on their level. Conversely, Ryota only knows how to bark orders from on high, which is no way to secure a child's love, or, for that matter, an adult's either.
It is fair to argue that Kore-eda idealizes Yudai a bit too much, failing to note the real-world disadvantages his children will have in life because he has not been as industrious as Ryota. But Kore-eda, with his unflappably measured style, also convincingly lays out the price Ryota and, by extension, the larger society pay for valuing career and status over human beings, especially the youngest and most malleable among us. Fundamentally, Kore-eda sees Japan as better off emotionally if it is populated by more men like Yudai rather than Ryota, and with that sentiment it is hard to argue.