Like Father, Like Son: Switched at Birth

AT WHAT POINT DOES A FATHER TRULY BECOME A FATHER?

Even Japan is changing. Many of us still tend to see the Japanese society as very business-oriented; it’s all about success and in the process family life may suffer. Director Hirokazu Kore-eda wanted a different perspective. For this film, he wrote the main character as a traditional and conservative man who is ultimately told by his boss to start prioritizing his family to a greater degree. In a 2014 interview with the website The Dissolve, Kore-eda sensed his country changing from the intense 1980s. He was probably not the only one; Like Father, Like Son became his biggest box-office success to date.

News from the hospital
Successful architect Ryôta Nonoyima (Masaharu Fukuyama) one day learns from his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) that the hospital where she gave birth to their six-year-old son Keita (Keita Ninomiya) wants to talk to them. They’re told that there was a mix-up six years ago; Keita was switched at birth. At the same time, another family, the Saikis, learn the same thing about their son Ryusei (Shôgen Hwang). Hospital representatives introduce the two families to each other, encouraging them to spend time together. They begin to meet and soon realize how different they are, but make an effort to socialize; the two boys get along fine.

In the end though, a decision must be made. Will the couples trade each other’s sons?

Very different families
The director had his first hits with Nobody Knows (2004) and Still Walking (2008), films that depicted families and children in particular. Like Father, Like Son shows once again how skillfully Kore-eda captures the details that make a drama like this stand out. The two families are indeed very different in ways that are illustrated to great effect.

The Saikis are a free-spirited couple and Ryôta instantly gets the impression that Yudai (Lily Franky) is lazy and unambitious, his direct opposite. It’s true that Yudai does not have great goals in life, but it’s also clear to us in the audience that Ryôta is missing something. He may be a devoted father who loves his child, but Yudai notices that Ryôta never plays with Keita; there’s always work to be done and in all honesty Ryôta doesn’t seem to enjoy that part of fatherhood. Yudai, on the other hand, is a natural when it comes to playing with Ryusei. The Nonoyimas are sophisticated, neat and tidy; the Saikis are folksy and chaotic. When the two couples switch sons over a weekend, the different styles collide, but that’s just something they will have to get over, right?

I spent the movie thinking that there’s really only one solution to their problem, and that’s also how the film ends. Anything else would have been impractical, even cruel. But knowing this doesn’t detract from the satisfaction of watching the film. Observing the differences between the families is highly enjoyable and the acting is superb, especially Fukuyama as the uptight Ryôta who has a lesson to learn. His rapport with young Ninomiya is perfect for the film. The director deliberately chose to keep his focus on fatherhood, not least for personal reasons. Apparently, there’s a lot of Kore-eda in Ryôta, his own learning process reflected in that character.

The director handles the film’s difficult issues with intelligence and emotion without letting sentimentality dominate. He has a restrained style, aptly accompanied by Bach, which I’m sure Ryôta would find tasteful. That choice of music also reminded me of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979); perhaps Kore-eda deliberately looked to Robert Benton for inspiration.

Like Father, Like Son 2013-Japan. 121 min. Color. Produced by Kaoru Matsuzaki, Hijiri Taguchi. Written, directed and edited by Hirokazu Kore-eda. Cast: Masaharu Fukuyama (Ryôta Nonomiya), Machiko Ono (Midori Nonoyima), Yoko Maki (Yukari Saiki), Lily Franky (Yudai Saiki), Jun Fubuki, Jun Kunimura.

Trivia: Original title: Soshite chichi ni naru.

Cannes: Jury Prize.

Last word: “I started by meeting Mr. Fukuyama, the actor for the main character, and we wanted to do something together. Mr. Fukuyama is a huge star in Japan, but he’s not an actor and when I thought about what would be interesting for him to do, he doesn’t really look like a father, so I thought that might be an interesting role for him to play. Then I thought of the things I feel as a father, the struggles that I have and decided to put them on him and have him struggle with what I’m struggling with as a father. So I started thinking about [are you a father because of] birth?” (Kore-eda, Moveable Fest)

 

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