Of the three hundred films at Toronto, I made sure to see Like Father, Like Son because I had been charmed by a couple of director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s previous films, including I Wish, about two pre-teen brothers who dream of taking a bullet train to visit each other, and the bittersweet Nobody Knows, about four siblings who secretly raised themselves after their mother abandoned them.
I was charmed again.
The Odd Couples
Like Father, Like Son opens on a six-year-old boy, Keita (Keita Ninomiya), at what looks like the kindergarten version of an oral defense of a dissertation. Indeed, he is interviewing for a position at an advanced school, and then it’s off to the piano lessons.
Keita’s father Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) is a busy architect who demands the best from his son. The Nonomiya home is a tastefully furnished apartment high above the city. Mr. Nonomiya obviously doesn’t subscribe to the architectural philosophy of Christopher Alexander, who points to evidence that living in high-rises makes people emotionally detached. More likely Mr. Nonomiya embraces his detachment from the riff-raff below. Some characters remark that the apartment looks like a hotel, which is usually phrased as a compliment even though it isn’t one.
We get to know the Nonomiya family (also including mother and wife Midori (Machiko Ono)) for about fifteen minutes of screen time... and then the plot device lands. The hospital calls to tell them that there was a mix-up, and that their son was switched at birth with another boy. They’d like the families to meet and to decide whether to exchange their sons.
Implausible and contrived? Yes. Kore-eda makes the most of introducing us to the other family. After spending twenty minutes of screen time with the tidy, gentle, and aspirational Nonomiya family, the slovenly Saikis barge into frame bickering, children running amok.
Luckily, Kore-Eda is a gentle, honest director, not prone to going for cheap laughs. He even gives nurse Miyazaki, who was responsible for the switch, the chance to tell her unexpected side of the story later in the film. And of course the first-impression caricature of the Saikis is quickly mitigated by their genuine humanity.
The Saiki parents (played by Yôko Maki and Rirî Furankî) run a cluttered appliance-repair shop. They have three children: 6, 5, and 3 years old. They bathe together and eat heartily together. They even do the sorts of things (such as flying kites on the beach) that Keita was coached to say that he did while studying at cram school for his kindergarten interview.
You could say the Saiki parents play with the kids on their own level, rather than trying to raise them into adults.
The film sides strongly against Ryota’s ambitious personality. To the children, Ryota is a taskmaster and no fun. To his wife, Ryota worries too much about getting ahead. And to the audience, Ryota is an arrogant jerk — even working with his lawyer for a time to try to gain custody of both boys.
Luckily, Kore-eda cast Masaharu Fukuyama in the role. Fukuyama handles the thankless role well. He is handsome and charismatic, which makes us want to forgive his character’s flaws and root for him to become a better person. It helps that Mr. Ryota is well-meaning, and that he isn’t so inflexible that there’s no hope for change. But even his wife gets sick of him sometimes, joking to little Keita that they should run away together and leave father behind.
The six-year olds are too young to pass any judgments on their father. During an early exchange of the boys, Mr. Ryota lectures young Ryusei (Shôgen Hwang) on the proper use of chopsticks. Ryusei doesn’t seem fazed by the condescending tone; he’s trying his best to figure out how they work. And as for Keita, he doesn’t seem to have a talent for piano, but he’s willing to accept the polite applause of pitying adults unironically. Their innocence makes the boys all the more charming.
Packed With Success
When you make a film like this, with such a contrived but fertile setup, you expect a dramatist to make the most of it. Some obvious themes to consider: contrasts between families, nature vs. nurture, and the meaning of family and the importance of blood. Kore-Eda packs the film densely, taking advantage of all these dramatic opportunities, and more.
He adds to his success by pacing the drama well: he gives us time to know the Ryotas as excellent parents before revealing that they are perhaps too much of a good thing. He gives us a long time to consider the exchange of the children before making it, then gives us plenty of time to see how things work out before coming to a conclusion. The film runs a little more than 2 hours; it feels a little long at the very end, but I wouldn’t have cut anything leading up to it.
What really makes Like Father, Like Son successful are the kind and genuine performances and humanistic script. The final package is sweet, heartfelt and — once again — charming.