Winner of the Jury Prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Like Father, Like Son is the latest gentle character study from Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda, spiritual heir to his great countryman Yasujirô Ozu (Tokyo Story).
As often in his films (Nobody Knows, I Wish), Koreeda focuses on kids, here a couple of 6-year-old boys called Keita and Ryusei. But the foreground this time is largely taken by their parents.
They’re Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama), a driven architect, and his stay-at-home wife Midori (Machiko Ono), who live in modernist splendor in a high-rise that visitors liken to a hotel. As strict about the parenting of his only child as he is absent in the kid’s day-to-day life, Ryota thinks a day without piano lessons is the equivalent of throwing away Keita’s entire socioeconomic future.
Living in a smaller town, appliance shop owner Yudai (Rirî Furankî) and wife Yukari (Yôko Maki) are raising son Ryusei as the eldest of three in a cramped, comfortable house. As hands-on as Ryota isn’t, Yudai leaps into inflatable bouncy castles to play with his kids and takes nightly baths with all three of them in a tub half the size of the one in Ryota’s condo.
What links the two clans? The sons, Keita and Ryusei, belong, you could say, to both families: they were switched at birth in the hospital. (How that happened is the movie’s most intriguing subplot, one that could easily have gotten more screen time than it does.)
The setup is pure, American movie-of-the-week. But both sets of parents approach the blood-boiling issue with the sort of admirable restraint you might expect in Japan (or a Koreeda movie, anyway). The logical tone is no surprise from the chronically glacial Ryota, but even Yudai and Yukari — other than gleefully speculating how much of a settlement the hospital will pay for its bungle — take the news relatively in stride. Emotions get hot only when Ryota clumsily proposes that he and Midori should receive custody of both boys. After all, they have the financial and social power to do so. “You’ve never lost at anything,” the offended Yudai snaps. “You can’t understand how other people feel.”
As Like Father, Like Son unfolds over most of a calendar year, it quietly questions the issue of nature vs. nurture, of the influences genetics and environment bring to the development of a child’s personality, or what could be called “soul.”
As the parents trade sons, at first only for weekend sleepovers, the boys adapt — but only up to a point. Keita enjoys the other family’s rambunctiousness, but still believes his visits are “a mission,” only the latest developmental lesson his father has prescribed. Meanwhile, at the high-rise, Ryusei questions all of the rules of behavior Ryota lays down for him. (Ironically, what can be seen as recalcitrance could also be interpreted as exactly the sort of intellectual curiosity Ryota finds lacking in his nonbiological son.)
Don’t let the movie’s title mislead you though. Yes, the focus often narrows — especially on Ryota and whichever of the boys are sharing scenes with him. But as the movie visits other characters, including Ryota’s semi-estranged father and stepmother, and even a nurse from the hospital where the boys were born, its real subject steps forward. Like Father, Like Son is really an exploration of different types of domestic life. It’s an inquiry of what, exactly, “family” means.
The film makes no absolute judgment calls, though it clearly sides with the emotionally unbuttoned Yudai. The character has to deliver some of the film’s more blatant lines, exhorting Ryota to spend more time with his son — whichever one he ends up with — and teach the boy how to fly a kite. (This obvious underscoring is surprising from Koreeda, whose scripts tend to be subtler.) The female characters are largely confined to roles as passively supportive helpmates. Reflection of Japanese cultural mores, or lazy writing? Only in a scene early in the film, when Midori quietly suggests to Keita that the two of them run away together, do we get a real sense of an unsuspected inner life.
Oh, one last caveat: Koreeda prefers a real-time, slow-petal-unfolding approach to his film’s tempos. That’s fine, up to a point, but Like Father is one of his works that especially could have used a nip or two from its leisurely running time. But if it’s a little on the slow side, the final minutes still deliver a sweet wallop.
Small quibbles. Yes, I prefer the other Koreeda films I’ve seen. But what a luxury it is to be able to rank preferences among such a selection of wise, gentle works.
Like Father, Like Son. With Masaharu Fukuyama (Ryota), Machiko Ono (Midori), Yôko Maki (Yukari) and Rirî Furankî (Yudai). Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda. 121 minutes. Unrated. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.