Director Hirokazu Koreeda’s latest film Like Father, Like Son is brimming with weight. Only one scene exists without this additional density: the first one. Ryusei, the assumed son of adoring parents Ryota and Midori, diligently answers questions by the school board of an infantry he’s attending. It is a rudimentary, perhaps dull, moment in their lives: one more formality to attend to. At the conclusion of the scene however they descend a spiralled staircase and the camera leaves them behind. It becomes a clear omen of things to come – we immediately find out a paternity case threatens to pull everything apart at the seams.
Like Father, Like Son poses the question Can you really love a child without your own blood? The aforementioned parents of the Nonomiya family are greeted with this news shortly after, meeting with the parents of the Saiki family at the hospital. The hospital made a mistake six years ago and they’ve only now been made aware of it when Saiki’s son Nobuko failed a blood match with his parents as part of a formality for school admittance. Thanks to Koreeda’s droit hand we’re fortunately spared the opportunity for the son to play catch with his true father – instead we’re gifted an analysis of how the respective parents, namely Ryota and Midori Nonomiya, confront the cancer of this news.
The film goes a long way to answering the question. The main character here is clearly Ryusei’s father Ryota. Struggling with the understanding that he is not Ryusei’s biological father, that his own son is a complete stranger, he retreats inwardly. If this were an American film he’d disappear to a bar and talk it out with a bartender and a pretty girl, but this is Japan where work is honour and he works harder and longer than ever before, to the point that his own boss begins to worry.
While the hospital is doing its best to right the wrongs (the reason behind the switch is something of a bombshell) and make the handover as normal for the boys – and families – as possible its becomes clear that maybe the red tape procedure isn’t the best approach after all. It’s not as easy as switching children between two Japanese families, if that can be a simple task in any world.
These children are products of polar opposite environments: Ryusei has been raised in a high rise apartment that’s compared to a luxury “hotel room” by parents who play the role of warm and cold, as if they’re good cops/bad cops. Ryota wants Ryusei to be a star pupil whereas his wife Midori just wants to let her child know he is loved despite the future. The Saiki family live over an hour away in the back of an old dusty Toshiba electronics store in the suburbs where Yukari whittles his days talking with customers and discussing how much to sue the hospital for. The question that arcs the film is one for Ryota to answer. The Saiki family might be poor but family rules before anything else, if their communal bathing is anything to judge on.
A film with a delicate subject matter that could have been a rehash of a thousand other films preceding it, Hirokazu Koreeda has directed an excellent little family drama that captivates with its subtle yet electrifying performances.
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire