Hirokazu Kore-eda’s new film “Like Father, Like Son” serenely observes its characters with deep sympathy toward their hard, difficult circumstance. Slowly and delicately immersing itself in the rhythm of daily life, the movie never overplays the accumulating emotions inside the characters as they struggle with a complex matter between them, and we come to muse on a difficult human question at the center of the story.
The story starts with a premise you have probably heard about through fictions or news articles. Ryota(Masaharu Fukuyama) and Midori(Machiko Ono), an affluent middle-class couple living in their cozy apartment in Tokyo, have a young son named Keita(Keita Ninomiya), and the opening scene shows Keita and his parents going through the interview for Keita’s enrollment to a private school. Like many parents would, Ryota and Midori emphasizes how much Keita resembles their good sides, and then Keita tells an interviewer how much his father spends his time with him.
Although it is soon revealed that he lied about that(he just did it as told by his teacher), they are a good family on the whole. While Ryota is a workaholic driven by the need to win and succeed and he is rather disappointed by his son’s underachieving status, he loves his son like any good dad should, and his strict side is complemented by the soft side of Midori, who gently dulls her husband’s abrasiveness when they are with their son at their home.
And then a sudden news breaks into their comfortable life and everything looks quite different as a consequence. It turns out that her son was switched with the baby belonging to the other couple not long after Midori gave a birth to him six years ago, and the hospital belatedly notifies that fact to Ryota and Midori after the other parents happened to discover that their son is not biologically related to them. After hearing that news, Ryota and Midori are naturally shocked, and their loving son now looks like someone else to Ryota, who, like many fathers in Asian countries, thinks blood relationship matters a lot.
Rather than going all the way for heightened emotions, the movie takes a quiet route as calmly watching the characters going through the next several months. Ryota and Midori meet the other parents, Yukari(Yôko Maki) and Yudai(Rirî Furankî), and two couples go through the negotiation with the hospital for compensation while the investigation is started to clarify how the switching happened at that time. Two families soon meet each other while the truth is hidden from the boys, and the parents begin to discuss about what should be done to them.
It is fortunate that the boys are still young and may adjust quickly to their exchanged environments, but both couples see that it is not that easy to resolve their intertwined relationships with these two boys. Ryota and Midori are certainly glad to get their biological son back as much as Yudai and Yukari, but how can they let themselves separated from the son they have nurtured for six years? And how can they possibly move on from that?
With the agreement from both sides, the things get slowly progressed as days and months go by. Ketia and Ryusei(Hwang Shogen) begin to spend more time with their respective biological parents, and we get to know more about not only Ryota and Midori but also Yukari and Yudai, a working-class couple who also has two other kids in their relatively humble household. Yukari and Yudai do not give an impression of model parents to Ryota and Midori(and us) during their first meeting, and Ryota even considers taking care of both boys instead of them, which is pretty insensitive to say the least. It is gradually shown to us that Yudai and Yukari are good parents to their kids in spite of their human flaws; still childish at his heart, Yudai is good with kids, and Yukari is quickly connected with Midori as the mothers who understand the situation better than their men.
Maintaining a tranquil tone through careful setting of moods and compositions, the director/writer Hirokazu Kore-eda moves his story in leisurely pace, and we get gradually absorbed into their developing circumstance. You may say they look a little too civilized to be real, but they are presented as ordinary people coping with the pains and agonies resulted from their difficult situation, and we come to care a lot about what they will decide to do at every point in the story.
While the movie equally looks around its characters, it can be said that its main story is Ryota’s emotional growth as a father. When he visits his aging father during one small scene, we sense that his father was not exactly a model dad to Ryota and his aloof demeanors may be the consequence of his unhappy childhood. He has probably been trying to distance himself from his loser dad for many years, but he only finds that he is no better than his father, regardless of whether he is with Keita or Ryusei. While Masaharu Fukuyama is believable as a detached man who slowly comes to learn more about fatherhood through his mistakes, his adult co-actors bring human colors to the story in their good performances, and it should be mentioned that the child actors in the movie give wonderfully natural performances as the small but substantial supporting characters in the story(this won’t be much of surprise to you if you are familiar with Kore-eda’s previous films such as “I Wish”(2011), whose breezy charm mainly comes from a lovable duo performance by its two young lead actors).
As he has done in his best works, Hirokazu Kore-eda, who received the Grand Jury Prize for this film at the Cannes Film Festival in this year, handles his story and characters with understated sensitivity and warm humor, and the movie effortlessly goes around laughs and poignancy with its characters. The ending may be predictable, but it arrives with heartfelt emotions, and, after touched and amused a lot by the movie for 2 hours, I come to wish that the kids will be all right – and the adults, too.