Like Father, Like SonApril 19, 2014
This time last year, French director, Lorraine Lévy gave us The Other Son, a film about Jewish and Palestinian boys who had been accidentally switched at birth. It was a story that could easily have degenerated into melodrama or political proselytising but Lévy kept a tight rein on the narrative – or so it seemed at the time. When it comes to keeping a tight rein, there is nobody to touch the Japanese, whose sense of formality seems embedded in their DNA.
Hirokazu Koreeda brings a new intensity to the ‘switched at birth’ theme in Like Father, Like Son, an understated drama about two families who find that the sons they have loved and raised for six years, are not their biological children.
Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) is successful executive in a firm that specialises in large urban developments. By his own account Ryota is a winner who never gives up, even when it means spending most of his time at the office or working late into the night at home. He and his wife, Midori (Machiko Ono), have a six year-old-son, Keita, who is being brought up in the precise and disciplined way that Ryota demands.
This routine is upset when the couple are called to the hospital where Midori gave birth and informed that Keita is actually the son of another couple, the Saikis. They in turn have been bringing up a boy called Ryusei, who is the son of Ryota and Midori. The boys were swapped by a depressed nurse who tried to dissipate her own unhappiness in one desperate act.
If this discovery were not traumatic enough, Ryota is appalled by his opposite number, Yudai Saiki (Lily Franky), who works in an appliance shop. He and his wife, Yukari (Yoko Maki), whose obstreperous family includes two smaller children, are unpleasant reminders of the working class roots that Ryota and Midori have transcended. To Ryota, the Saikis are pure anarchy, while Yudai seems hardly more than an overgrown child himself.
At first it seems impossible that the Nonomiyas could surrender the well-behaved Keita for a boy brought up in this manner, but the pressure to resolve the situation continues to grow. Ryota begins to feel that blood ties cannot be foresworn. Soon the boys are being swapped for short visits, and eventually for keeps.
Keita now finds himself part of an attentive, loving family, while Ryusei has to adjust to living in an expensive, sterile apartment with a father who lays down a long list of rules. The difficulties of adjusting to these new arrangements make Ryota conscious of his deficiencies as a parent. Indeed, the title of the film might well refer to Ryota’s relationship with his own father, who appears as a cold, self-centred figure who never had much time for his children.
Despite his instinctive contempt for Yudai, Ryota realises that both boys would much prefer to live with the Saikis. Ryota hates to lose at anything, but as a father he is not in the same class as the happy-go-lucky Yudai who will fix broken toys and play games with his kids. Having spoilt his relationship with Keita and failed to bond with Ryusei, Ryota feels unloved, and wonders if he is actually capable of feeling love in his own heart. He has to confront and conquer these fears if he is not to leave his family in ruins.
Koreeda’s pacing is perfect, drawing us into the story by degrees as each character tries to adjust to a new way of life. He is particularly good in letting us see the problem through the eyes of the children, who say little but reveal their feelings through their actions.
As if to signal the almost mathematical nature of the problem, the sparingly used background music is by J.S.Bach. Many viewers will instantly recognise Glenn Gould’s idiosyncratic rendition of the Goldberg Variations. It seems to imply there is always another way to bring new life to a particular theme, whether it is a piece of music or the tightly-knit triangle of mother, father and son.
Like Father, Like Son
Japan, rated PG
Written & directed by Hirokazu Koreeda; starring Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono, Lily Franky, Yoko Maki, Keita Nonomiya, Shogen Hwang
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 19 April, 2014.