Film Review: Like Father, Like Son
A hospital mix-up leads to a sometimes ham-handed examination of Japanese class differences
Published: February 19, 2014
Like father, Like Son
Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
Opens soon at the Charles Theater
Midori (Machiko Ono) tells her husband Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) that she loves their six-year-old son. This statement should be a given—of course a mother loves her child—but she utters it as a confession. Six years back, when Midori chose to give birth in the country hospital near her mother, her son and another couple’s son were accidentally switched. Keita (Keita Niomiya) is actually the son of Yudai (Riri Furanki), an appliance shopkeeper, and his wife Yukari (Yōko Maki). They’ve raised Ryusei (Shôgen Hwang) as their own along with their two daughters. Yudai and Yukari discovered Ryusei wasn’t theirs during routine blood tests to enter elementary school. The hospital tracked down Midori and Ryota, the other couple who had a son born that day, to notify them to have a DNA test to see if Keita is theirs. They all head to a lab for the test, but the apprehension on Ryota’s face suggests the conclusion is foregone: Keita isn’t his.
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son is an odd drama, and continues the Japanese director’s interest in childhood confusions (divorce in I Wish, abandonment in Nobody Knows). Father initially feels like it’s going to be an exploration of the roles of nature vs. nurture in child development, as the couples, with advice from the hospital, decide on a plan to make an exchange. Over a period of months they will introduce their sons to each other and then, over a series of play dates and sleepovers, blend the boys into their appropriate biological families. The hospital advises they make this switch before the boys start elementary school.
For a movie that puts both “father” and “son” in the title, both Keita and Ryusei seem to be remarkably unaffected by everything. Sure, that could be an acknowledgement that kids are remarkably resilient creatures, but the movie seems much more interested in emphasizing the class differences between Ryota and Yudai. Architect Ryota’s insistence on the prim and proper is telegraphed in his trim-fitting suits and apartment, which is dominated by right angles, white-on-white decor, and perpetually shiny stainless steel in the kitchen and hardwood floors in the living room. He prides himself on working too much and faults Keita for being too nice and carefree about losing games with peers. Ryota manages to keep a straight face upon meeting the working-class Yudai initially, but at the first play date, where the shopkeeper slurps his beverage through a straw and deigns to throw off his shoes and fool around with the kids, Ryota can barely hide his contempt. Yudai isn’t just a working stiff, he wears plaid shirts and his hair unkempt. This is who has been raising Ryota’s son?
This divide is clumsily extended to the couples as a whole from the very start: When the couples first meet they show each other photos of their sons. Ryota and Midori offer a professional portrait of Keita; Yudai and Yukari present a blurry snapshot from a family trip. The differences become so cartoonish that parallel scenes lose any bite in juxtaposition: an organized, tidy bath for Keita with Ryota and Midori is contrasted later in the film with a bath with Yudai, where the impish man is goofing around in the tub with the kids. You suspect some statement about the divides in contemporary Japanese society is at play here, but it is articulated in such convenient clichés that it becomes farce, like the Carringtons being forced to break bread with the Clampetts.
You suspect Kore-eda is aiming for the sublime terrain of Yasujirō Ozu, one of cinema’s virtuosos of understatement, with this closely observed family drama, which makes this heavy-handedness so perplexing—especially since a few genuinely moving subtle moments crop up every now and then. Ono quite devastatingly plays Midori’s confession of falling for Ryusei as a betrayal of Keita, and even the consistently stern-mouthed Ryota crumbles when he scrolls through his digital camera and finds photos that Keita took of him. Most promising, a series of choices early in the film spotlights the possibilities Like Father, Like Son flirts with but never capitalizes on. Ryota practices the piano with Keita, the camera following their fingers making similar patterns on the keyboard. A few scenes later, after finding out Keita isn’t his son, Ryota sits in his car, a harsh, confused look on his face, as a snippet of Bach’s Goldberg Variations plays on the soundtrack. It’s a gorgeously complex and quiet moment, the music eloquently showcasing the almost endless beauty that can be achieved through melodic variation while a man seethes in the disappointment that the DNA variation of the little human being he thought was has son isn’t. Such moments promise an emotional knockout punch that the film never quite lands, and instead it settles for glancing blows that merely wear you down.
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