The complexities of each individual family unit are boundless. Both child and parent interact in unique ways, forging memories and developing routines. We make plans. We make promises. We form unshakable bonds. But the ties that bind run deeper than blood, and often stand strongest on ethereal and sometimes inexplicable levels. It’s because of such connections that we have no doubt as to who our family is. Whether the family you’re born into, or that which you make for yourself, there’s an undeniable gravitational pull. In rare cases, mistakes have been made. Children swapped, and taken home with the wrong parent. Sometimes errors are caught. Others go unnoticed. Such is the premise for Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest venture into the family unit, Like Father, Like Son.
Ryoto Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) is a wealthy, successful Tokyo architect. He spends most of his time at work, in order to provide for his wife, Midori (Machiko Ono), and their six-year-old son, Keita (Keita Ninomiya). Their life seems perfect: a wonderful career, a beautiful condo, piano lessons, tutoring, and a future to plan. Their plans for Keita are derailed when the maternity hospital where he was born contacts the parents, informing them of a grave error. At birth, Keita was mistakenly swapped with another infant born that same day. The son they have is not their own. Due to traditional values, and presumably legal matters, Midori and Ryoto must meet with Keita’s birth parents in order to discuss a trade.
The other parents, Yudai (Rirî Furankî) and Yukari Saiki (Yôko Maki), live a modest life. Yudai runs an electronics shop, while Yukari works at a fast food restaurant. Ryusei (Shôgen Hwang) is the Nonomiya’s birth son, one of the Saiki’s three children. A rambunctious boy, energetic and eager to play, he seems a stark contrast to Keita, a surprisingly disciplined and poised 6-year-old.
The hospital’s lawyer urges the parents to make their decision to exchange the children quickly, with entrance to elementary school looming. “They’re not pets,” replies Yudai in amused disbelief. The decision is a difficult one, made increasingly complicated by tradition and pride.
The concept is simple, almost schematic in nature. Yet, in spite of being able to predict the inevitable outcome, the cliché stands true: this is about the journey. Ryoto’s transition from cold, distant father, incapable of truly connecting with either son, to a man desperately trying to understand his own depth of emotion, is beautiful. He’s a traditional man, almost against his will. There’s a kindness in his eyes, but it’s suffocated by an imposed tradition. The source of this imposition isn’t made clear until well into the film’s 121 minute run time, but it’s no surprise. Fukuyama offers a delicate portrayal of a man struggling against the ills of his own childhood, and his own resentment towards an emotionally stunted father.
Where Ryoto feels cold and withdrawn, Yudai is warm and chaotic. Ryoto schedules piano lessons for his 6-year-old, whereas Yudai shares the tub during bath time. The key difference lies in Ryoto’s inability to connect. He’s mastered the art of disciplining his child, but out of fear, a tactic that does not work on the rambunctious Ryusei.
There’s a cold logic behind swapping the children, in spite of six years of history. However, this calculated reasoning is only apparent to Ryoto. His acceptance of this unfeeling course of action is exceedingly reluctant. He condones the trade on principle: Ryusei is his biological son, therefore, he should be raised by them. Blood is family, by traditional standards. What happens when they grow up? What if they start to look more like their birth parents? What kind of shame will they be faced with?
Midori’s reluctance to follow through is trumped by her role as dutiful wife: in a house run fairly traditionally, a crisis is not the time to rebel. But there are moments. Ono radiates a palpable sense of resentment, a silent regret that bubbles below the surface of Midori’s otherwise stoic exterior. Her performance is beautifully nuanced, lending a subtle agony to the suffering mother.
The anguish seems to be felt most profoundly by the mothers. We watch as Midori packs up their photos, memories of birthdays and scraped knees, footprints in clay and paper roses. An exchanged glance with Yukari at the playground betrays a shared desire to keep their families intact, tradition be damned. They’ve been forced to deny themselves the bond they feel with their child, to sweep it away in favour of the proper family that should never have eluded them.
It’s in this way that Kore-eda has succeeded. The film radiates a profound depth of emotion, and a sensitive handling of delicate subject matter that, in less skilled hands, would have fallen victim to trite melodrama. What we’re left with is a touchingly human portrayal of compassion and growth. He has created an exquisitely painful and simultaneously uplifting story about what it means to love. About the footprints and memories which can’t be replaced, and the indelible imprint of affection.