When they learn that their son was switched at birth with another boy born the same day, Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) and his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) have their world turned upside down. They meet with the Saiki family, and try to decide how to do what’s best for both families.
Like Father, Like Son won a Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, and then Jury President Steven Spielberg is enamoured enough with the film that a Hollywood remake is already in the works. Hirokazu Koreeda’s film focuses on the parents of the two six year old boys, and the impossible choice they face; keep the child they have raised for six years, or exchange him for the boy that is their flesh and blood son.
Lead actor Masaharu Fukuyama is a well-known singer in his native Japan, but rest assured that his casting in Like Father, Like Son is not done for kicks. Fukuyama plays a conservative father who has strict beliefs about who a father should be, and what he should do. Although Ryota is a borderline workaholic, it is clear that he has his son’s best interests at heart, and the scenes between man and young boy are warm and touching, if slightly reserved. Machiki Ono, as Ryota’s wife, is a woman who is used to her husband’s beliefs and accepts them, but she also shows some fragililty when she realises the enormity of the situation they face. Her scenes with her young colleague too, are gentle and warm, although she shows more love and affection that her more stoic husband. Keita Ninomiya plays their wide eyed and innocent son. The young actor does a fantastic job with everything he is given, and it is through him that the film truly comes to life.
The Saiki family are rather unlike the Nonomiyas; their family is larger and more chaotic and, far from being the tightly wound, career focused man that Ryota is, Yokio Maki plays Yukari as a man who knows the balance between work and family. Lily Franky, as Yukari’s wife Yudai, is as open and relaxed as her husband; the house is chaotic, mealtimes are a time for the family to come together – unlike Ryota, who is more concerned that his young son can use his chopsticks properly, than with enjoying his food – and bath time is a chance for everyone to bathe together. Shôgen Hwang, as the Saiki’s son, is much less introspective than his counterpart, but no less touching as he tries to come to terms with the change in his life.
Hirokazu Koreeda’s screenplay is comments on both the gender roles within Japanese society, as well as the idea that children are a source of pride. Ryota feels a sense of disappointment in his son, so when the chance arises to swap him with his biological child – someone who may not be as disappointing academically or musically – it is clear that Ryota sees this as a vindication for his son’s academic struggles. As well as this, gender lines are clearly drawn in the film, with the mothers being more concerned with love than bloodlines, and the men being more concerned with raising a child who is not their flesh and blood. Also, Hirokazu Koreeda seems to be almost unknowingly examining cultural differences between East and West; on viewing the film, the question of the families’ acceptance of their fate with very little emotion arises, as we, in the West, believe that we would have a stronger emotional reaction to such news. Maybe the mothers are too stunned to react or, and the films makes this seem more likely, they acquiesce to their husbands’ demands. Either way, it is an interesting debate.
Koreeda’s direction feels natural and unforced, particularly in the scenes with the children, who seem utterly at ease with the situation and the people around them. This leads to beautiful, innocent scenes with the kids, and a warmth that suffuses the entire film. As well as this, the film is surprisingly light for one that deals with such a strong and often shocking subject.
Like Father, Like Son suffers slightly from it’s running time, and Western audiences may find choices made due to cultural differences bewildering, but the film is warm and rich. The kids shine in the film, which feels like a character study and a comment on the cultural and economical divide within Japan. Hirokazu Koreeda’s film may raise more questions than it answers, but it is filled with fantastic performances, endearing characters and genuine emotion.