With his latest film, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda adds another film to his oeuvre that closely examines familial relations and how the smallest efforts can resolve the most daunting of circumstances. The most difficult obstacles to overcome often arise between people who love one another the most. One of the most powerful relationships has to be that between a father and son. With Like Father, Like Son, Kore-eda brews up a situation and digs so deep it cuts to a core rarely seen in cinema, despite what some may think is a plot contrivance.
Ryota and Midori Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama and Machiko Ono) are a well-off husband and wife living in a luxury condo with an only child, 6-year-old Keita (Keita Ninomiya). Ryota is a hard-working project manager involved in a plan to up-date the design of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, the central hub of Japanese transportation. Midori is a stay-at-home mom who makes sure Keita practices his piano, despite the little boy only having the ability to muster a halting version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The fact that Keita never protests and finds a way to stay satisfied with his piano lessons despite his mediocrity seems to quietly annoy his parents who send him mixed messages of encouragement (the father) or offer him a choice to stop (the mother).
Using a wit that’s subtly humorous but still brews pathos, Kore-eda sets up audience sympathy for this family with a few, well-placed lines early in the film. During a quick interview by a panel at a prestigious private school for Keita, the couple says a few words about their child as he sits between them, hands politely on his knees. “He doesn’t mind losing, which is dissatisfying as a father,” says Ryota. The one compliment the father is able to say about Keita is that he is kind, noting he takes after his mother. “These days kindness is a fault,” he adds.
Indeed there’s a coldness here. Kore-eda has a keen eye as sharp as his sense for dialogue. He highlights stark, neat architecture around this family for transitional, establishing shots. Later on, when things turn earthier, he focuses on nature and at another home important to the story’s eventual plot, defined by a sensibility that may seem chaotic but still has a warmth and easy-going atmosphere.
As any good upper middle class couple, the Nonomiyas strive to provide the best for their son. However, one day, they get a phone call from the hospital where Keita was born informing the couple to come in for news about their son. “I hope it’s nothing messy,” says the rigid father. He may be more concerned about how this might take away from his time at work and not the impact it might have on his son.
He has no idea.
Six years after the fact, it has come to the hospital’s attention that the Nonomiyas’ son had been switched at birth. The hospital has identified the couple who mistakenly got their biological son and where Keita came from. “In cases like these,” says a hospital official, “One hundred percent of families exchange.”
It will turn out the Nonomiyas’ biological son lives with a tinkering shopkeeper in the outskirts of the small town of the hospital where Midori insisted to have their first child because that was where she was born. “This is pathetic,” comments Ryota, as they pull up to the shop with its aging storefront. Yudai Saiki (Rirî Furankî) is a man with seemingly little ambition and already has three children with his take-charge wife, Yukari (Yôko Maki). It will turn out the eldest and tallest of all the kids is Ryosuke (Isao Natsuyagi), who originally belonged to the Nonomiyas.
The families agree to have meetings and introduce the boys to one another. Yudai makes sure to collect receipts so the hospital picks up the tab for meals (and maybe indulges in a little extra). Ryota, meanwhile, plots with a lawyer to take custody of both boys. The fact that Yudai puts an end to Ryota’s plans with a slap reveals Kore-eda’s brilliant sense to present powerful “statement” moments that undo many a complex ploy, and this film has many such powerful, blink-of-an-eye moments of resonance that pitch the plot along, despite what some may think is an indulgent two-hour run time.
Ultimately, this film finds a way to tug at your heartstrings in a beautiful, stirring, multi-layered manner that speaks to undeniable bonds of family despite what might seem like a contrived situation. It’s a crowd-pleaser of a film, so it’s no wonder it won the jury prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. But it doesn’t only go for the gut. It examines a complex relationship between fathers and sons and the cycle of behavior often inherited and passed along in families. Though Ryota may sound villainous, Kore-eda, who also wrote the script, fleshes him out to make him as sympathetic as his own, saucer-eyed, innocent of a “son,” little Keita.
Speaking to the power of the writing and pacing of the film, the majority of Like Father, Like Son’s best moments lie in short, revealing scenes that present telling behaviors of all those involved. The film opens and closes with some sentimental, spare piano melodies (in ironic contrast to Keita’s playing) and moments of over-explicating dialogue, but it’s easily forgiven, as the film goes on to explore the relationship on several, organic scenes without scoring. For much of the film, Like Father, Like Son looks deep within family, defying notions of sentimentality. Its greatness lies in the purest moments of raw, relatable family drama that pile up like neat bricks in a wall that will either unite these people or divide them.
Like Father, Like Son runs 121 minutes, is in Japanese with English subtitles and is not rated (nothing offensive about it). It’s now probably at a theater near you (visit the film’s official site linked at the top of this review). In South Florida, it has already opened at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and the Bill Cosford Cinema on Friday, Feb. 21. The following week, starting Feb. 28, it expands to the MDCulture Art Cinema at Koubek Theater. IFC sent me a DVD screener for the purposes of this review.