Children switched at birth and discovered years after the error is the well-worn melodramatic scenario that master filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda manages to make potentially one of the most elegantly simplistic entries into said familiar territory with his latest film, Like Father, Like Son. A scenario generously used throughout the history of cinema (and more recent titles like The Other Son and Midnight’s Children come to mind), Koreeda deftly examines a quietly moving nature vs. nurture sequence of events that manages to be generously moving despite feeling familiar when compared to other entries within Koreeda’s impressive oeuvre.
Beginning with his preschool entrance exam, we are introduced to six year old Keita (Keita Ninomiya), who is being interviewed by a panel of adults concerning his family background. We quickly pick up on the fact that Keita and his parents, Ryota (Masashi Fukuyama) and Midori (Machiko Ono) are quite wealthy, and it’s established in the interview that Ryota thinks his son takes after his mother in being too kind and lacking motivation to succeed. It turns out that Ryota is a mostly absent father, but is intent on raising a son that will lead an aggressively successful life, forcing Keita into piano lessons and even composing a list of daily drills and rules for Keita to adhere to. Midori seems cowed by her husband’s imperiousness, avoiding confrontation even while disagreeing with his treatment of Keita. But suddenly, the hospital in which Keita was born contacts Midori and we learn that for an as yet undisclosed reason, Keita and another boy, Ryusei (Hwang Sho-gen) were switched at birth.
Ryota seems immediately relieved, believing this explains Keita’s lack of so many gifted qualities he believes should have been passed down genetically. Upon meeting the working class parents of Ryusei, Yudai and Yukari (Lily Franky and Yoko Maki), Ryota is instantly disgusted with their mediocre, casual ways, what with the couple having two other children and running a suburban appliance store. While Ryota wishes to keep both Keita and Ryusei, ultimately, to the chagrin of Midori, the parents switch the boys to their rightful biological owners, which begins a series of developments that forces the cold hearted Ryota to learn what being a father is really all about.
As with his Nobody Knows (2004) and I Wish (2011), Koreeda again returns to subtle ripples of devastating emotional trauma involving the separation or uprooting of children from their parents or safe environments. While Like Father, Like Son is neither as devastating as Nobody Knows nor as hopeful as I Wish, he once again captures excellent and naturalistic performances from children, and it’s quiet hard not to be drawn into the plight of Keita and Ryusei, both subjected to a domineering parental figure insistent on continuing a cycle of emotional neglect/abuse experienced at the hands of his own father. Persistently simple and straightforward, Koreeda’s commentary may seem overtly obvious, but it’s never less than compelling.
Starting out with stiffly smug and uncomfortably wrought scenes due to the overtly pretentious Ryota (in a performance from Masashi Fukuyama that at first feels overly rehearsed but soon becomes genuinely transformative), Koreeda paces the film smoothly and mines a quiet grace with the character of Midori, who not so secretly wants to keep the son she grew to love over the past six years, a young boy she insistently claims takes after her. While it’s difficult to fault Like Father, Like Son, it’s an overtly familiar scenario from the talented Koreeda, returning us to the fragile and precarious lives of children constantly in danger of interruption by the adults supposedly there to look out for them. Fans and followers will certainly prize this latest entry, but Like Father, Like Son is also Koreeda like Koreeda.
Reviewed on May 18 at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival — MAIN COMPETITION.