Continuing his highly praised and numerously explored focus on the intrinsic role and challenges of family life in contemporary Japanese society, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son (2013) is another tenderly observed and emotionally fraught depiction of an all too real occurrence. Taking as its subject matter the universally recognised problem of children being switched at birth, and subsequently being raised, unwittingly, by the wrong families, this is another jewel in the crown that is Kore-eda’s extraordinary body of work, once again treating a delicate topic with both a contemplative style and the emphasis firmly embedded on the familial unrest brought about by such a startling revelation.
Masaharu Fukuyama stars as Ryota Nonomiya, a white-collar architect at a high-power firm whose dedication to their latest major project has been slowly putting a strain on his marriage to wife Midori (Machiko Ono) and the relationship with his six year old son Keita (Keita Ninomiya), who is due to start at a respected private school. A seemingly random call one day from the hospital where Midori gave birth quickly illuminates the fact that, unbeknownst to them and the doctors involved, Keita was in fact swapped with fellow preschooler Ryusei Saiki (Shôgen Hwang), son to Yudai (Rirî Furankî) and Yukari (Yôko Maki). Immediately stunned by such a life-altering admission, each set of parents begin to explore the various complications of whatever decision they eventually make.
Keita and Ryusei, meanwhile, are caught in a sober battle between two largely dissimilar couples, being perceived as too young to have a say in their ultimate fates. In keeping with the rest of his cinema (the recent I Wish and 2004’s Nobody Knows), Kore-eda maintains his effortless knack for coaxing remarkable performances from his young actors, who, alongside the equally strong adult actors, are fully engaging as characters governed by forces entirely out of their control. Though a narrative device frequently exploited elsewhere (from cinema to soap opera), the story is here studied in a more investigative manner, as Kore-eda – who also penned the screenplay – pieces together carefully observed moments whilst studying the ripples the impact has on two once ordinary households.
This, however, accentuates the nature versus nurture debate that both acts as a spine for the film and leads to it becoming slightly broad in its handling of a predicament devoid of easy answers, which is also true in Kore-eda’s handling of the clear binary oppositions of the two families and their respectively oppressive patriarchs: the stern, hardworking Ryota and the raffish shopkeeper Yudai. Though the dichotomies between upper middle and working class aren’t fully explored, and the balance of focus is slightly lopsided, Like Father, Like Son is an exemplary drama from a master of harrowing understatement.
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