When it comes to the authentic portrayal of the lives and concerns of children, no filmmaker today is more skillful than the Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda. His 2004 film Nobody Knows, and then I Wish, from a couple years ago, demonstrated marvelous insight, respect, and lack of condescension (always a danger in films about kids). His most recent picture, Like Father, Like Son, goes a step further in exploring the often difficult relationships between parents and children.
Riyota, a young, successful businessman, and Midori, his wife, live happily with their adorable six-year-old son Keita. The father pushes the son a little too hard to excel, but the boy is loved and seems well-adjusted. Then comes an unexpected shock. Through circumstances a bit too complex to explain here, DNA evidence comes to light showing that their baby had been switched with another one at the hospital. Their biological son has been raised by another family for the past six years.
Understandably furious, they go to a counseling session arranged by the hospital, and there they meet the other couple, Yudai, the unkempt and somewhat eccentric owner of an appliance store, and his wife Yukari. They have two other kids in addition to Ryusei, the boy that was switched. Surprising, at least to an American audience, is the notion that perhaps the families should switch children again at this late date, but what the film is examining is the importance of blood ties in Japanese culture, but particularly to Riyota, the upper-class, status-conscious father. In fact, looking down on his biological son’s lower class family, Riyota would really prefer to keep both kids, and even takes steps towards that goal.
Riyota is played by Masharu Fukuyama, a popular actor and musician in Japan, and his performance is remarkable for its lack of vanity. This Dad has good intentions, but his drive to succeed at work makes him neglect his family, and his emotions are largely shut down. Koreeda contrasts his cold demeanor with the free and easy manner of the other father, Yudai, played by Riri Furanki, to humorous and touching effect. Riyota may be smarter and richer, but you can tell which one is better with kids. The two mothers display a lot more sense than the dads, but the situation is such a mess that it’s no wonder the characters have to come to a breaking point.
The unusual nature of this plot makes things seem a little more contrived than one expects from a Koreeda film. But what’s wonderful is that the movie, despite its occasional humor, refuses to turn into an outright comedy. The heartbreak in the situation is always there, under the surface, permeating the mood of the film and causing viewers to question their own ideas and assumptions. Fukuyama, even though he’s playing an infuriatingly blind and stubborn person, gives his character enough depth for us to care about him anyway. And as always, the child characters are utterly believable.
Like Father, Like Son came and went very quickly earlier this year in Tucson. It’s now available on DVD.