Like Father, Like Son, the latest bittersweet drama from Japanese writer-director Kore-eda Hirokazu, may be utterly conventional in some ways, but its surging emotional power eventually proves too overwhelming to deny. We probably don’t need another film about a workaholic father who learns to stop and smell the roses, but when it’s handled as effortlessly as Kore-eda does here, you remember that storytelling conventions exist for a reason: In the right hands, they can still work wonderfully.
The film stars actor (and Japanese pop star) Fukuyama Masaharu as Ryota, who lives with his wife Midori (Ono Machiko) in a posh high-rise with their 6-year-old son, Keita. Because of their lush condo’s sterile environment and Ryota’s haughty demeanor, we sense that this is a man who needs to understand that making money isn’t everything. That lesson comes in an unexpected form, however: The hospital that delivered Keita reveals that they accidentally gave them the wrong boy, and that their child has been living with a working-class family led by parents Maki Yoko and Lily Franky. It’s a shocking development for all involved, but for Ryota it also creates a strange dichotomy of emotions. On one hand, he guiltily feels a sense of validation that the underachieving Keita wasn’t really his boy. On the other, there’s a great deal of trepidation about how best to negotiate the difficult decisions concerning what to do next with the two kids.
Kore-eda has often focused on families and children in his work, never more piercingly than with his 2004 drama Nobody Knows, which tracked a group of siblings who have to survive on their own after their mother abandons them. At first, Like Father, Like Son seems like it might revolve around the two boys, but it soon becomes apparent that Kore-eda has crafted this tale as a way to force Ryota to examine his life. Beyond the impossibility of facing this shocking turn of events, he also has to contend with a family whose gregarious, free-wheeling attitude runs counter to his stoic, focused personality. (As much as he wants his rightful son returned to him, Ryota’s snobbish attitude makes him resistant to hand over Keita to parents he considers beneath him socially and intellectually.)
Admittedly, Ryota’s evolution may not be particularly revelatory, but what Like Father, Like Son does exceptionally well is understand each emotional beat along the way of his journey, demonstrating that this obsessed businessman needs to do far more than simply lighten up in order to reach a level of happiness he’s never been able to attain through his career. Fukuyama doesn’t overdo Ryota’s stuffiness, instead letting us recognize that his superior attitude is a shield for insecurities he’s hoped to outrun in his adult life.
Also terrific is the film’s calm, measured pacing, which slowly metes out small emotional surprises upon Ryota and Midori once they’ve exchanged sons with the other family. Like Father, Like Son is certainly interested in the nature-versus-nurture debate that’s always waging in the study of childrearing, but at its core the movie seems more invested in exploring how we foolishly project our own values and needs onto our children, wanting them to justify our existence and legitimize our worldview. Beyond that, though, Like Father, Like Son also quite movingly suggests that no family structure is perfect, as these two sets of parents have to put aside their own biases to embrace a different way of operating in the world. And the film’s ending is just right, its refusal to offer a decisive conclusion emblematic of the endless joy, sorrow and uncertainty that comes from being a parent.
Director: Kore-eda Hirokazu
Writer: Kore-eda Hirokazu
Starring: Fukuyama Masaharu, Ono Machiko, Maki Yoko, Lily Franky
Release Date: Screening in the Official Competition at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival