LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON Review: Father Knows Best
Reading that a film has a “switched at birth” plot usually doesn’t inspire one to clamor for the remote. That theme has been around a long time and invokes thoughts of melodramatic made-for-TV fare or silly switcheroo comedies. But when the “switched at birth” premise is coupled with “Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize Winner,” clamoring for the remote becomes a necessity. But once you start Hirokazu Koreeda‘s sublime Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru), you can put the remote down because for the next two hours, you will be mesmerized.
Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) is a driven and successful architect working in modern-day Japan. He leads a very comfortable life with his beautiful wife Midori (Machiko Ono) and their adorable 6-year-old son Keita (Nonomiya Keita). Their life seems to be a happy one until they learn that the child they thought was theirs is actually the child of another couple, and that that couple has the Nonomiyas’ biological child.
The hospital where both children were born, eager to clean up their mess, brokers a meeting among the two sets of parents. This is where the Nonomiyas meet father Yudai and mother Yukari Saiki (Lily Franky and Yôko Maki, respectively), blue-collar parents with two other children in addition to Ryusei (Hwang Shogen), the son that was switched.
Given that six years have passed, the parents decide to gradually integrate the children into the opposite family’s life, with the long-term goal being that the children will permanently live with their biological parents. That turns out to be a more difficult road to travel than originally thought.
In the hypothetical situation I placed myself in (especially as a parent) while I watched Like Father, Like Son unfold, it seemed instinctive – even easy – to me that the solution to the problem was clear. The Nonomiyas created life. The Saikis created life. Each should lay claim to (a terrible phrase to apply to children, but apt given the circumstances) that which they each created.
Through Koreeda’s perfectly paced screenplay and his patient and engaging (yet never intrusive) direction, the solution is not that easy … and really, the solution isn’t necessarily that important. While narratively impactful, the switched-at-birth angle is mostly a plot device designed to introduce the deeper examination of Ryota’s struggle with nature-versus-nurture and his approach to parenthood and the journey it takes him on.
Koreeda first establishes an overt dichotomy between the fathers – white collar vs. blue; meticulous vs. messy; prompt vs. tardy. This approach not only gives the characters clear differences viewers can quickly connect with, it broadens the nature-versus-nurture debate by giving it a socioeconomic facet. This is something that drives Ryota from the opening scene of the film, which shows the Nonomiyas being interviewed by the board of a prestigious elementary school that the parents hope will accept their son. This is emblematic of Ryota’s approach to parenting – provide. Provide the best schooling, provide strict rules concerning piano practice and video game time, provide, provide provide … which means, of course, that Ryota works – a lot – to provide. But this is how he sees his role as father.
Conversely, Yudai is self-employed and what he cannot buy for his children he more than makes up for in physical presence. His is an approach built on forging bonds during the children’s formative years, from flying kites to bathtime silliness. Emblematic of Yudai’s approach is a terrific scene that occurs at the end of the first weekend when the boys swap homes. Keita has a booboo on his hand, the result of a fall while playing. The Nonomiyas are mortified (and at such a tiny thing), but Yudai simply rolls with it, brushing off the scrape as nothing more than a battle scar of a fun childhood.
Koreeda’s shrewdest move is allowing the events to play out over the course of months. Rather than simply swap the boys and be done with it, the families slowly break them into the notion of their “other” family. This completely neuters any chance of overwrought, reactionary drama and gives Ryota plenty of time to struggle with the notion that how he has been as a father, while not wrong, might not have had all of the best elements a father can have. It also allows him the opportunity to learn how to better express his feelings beyond the materialistic, too.
Through clever storytelling structuring, we learn that Ryota knows his way around nature-versus-nurture better than we think, having been raised by a father who holds sacred the notion that blood-ties trump all, yet by a stepmother who is the very antithesis of that.
This film is so rich with little details like this. My favorite is the difference in professions of the two fathers. It isn’t enough that Ryota works at a large architectural and design firm and that Yudai owns his own electronics repair shop. It’s that the former is a vocation that requires great specificity and pinpoint measurements to be successful, while the latter thrives in impromptu tinkering and finding comfort in drawers full of parts and piles of bits of things. Their work encapsulates their unique spirits so perfectly. Still, not one to let a chance go past, Koreeda even uses the differences in professions to create one of the more devastating moments in the film, when Keita tells Ryota that Yudai can fix his toy; Ryota is suddenly hit with the notion that providing for and doing for are two very different things.
Delivering for their director is a collection of actors who give top-notch performances all around, along with a pair of adorable child leads. But once Koreeda quickly settles in, the show belongs to Fukuyama, who gives a command performance as a father who, through circumstances completely out of his control, finds himself questioning everything he thought he knew so well.
It’s hard to fault any filmmakers who approach a switched-at-birth tale with melodrama or humor in mind because the situation is ripe for either. That Koreeda deftly avoids it is a testament to his skills as both a screenwriter and a director. That’s not to say there is no drama; there is plenty of it. But it’s delicate and nuanced and looks deeper into parenting than the shock/reaction/aftermath approach of lesser films. Those lesser films are meant to be simply consumed; Like Father, Like Son is meant to be savored.