Like Father, Like Son -- A Realistic and Moving Transformation of a Self-Absorbed Father

                                    What’s important in shaping up children’s personalities: Nature or Nurture? How do family head’s career and mentality shape the emotional strain of a household? What constitutes a family how do we describe non-monetary success? A film-maker who addresses these questions is prone to go melodramatic, running a risk of overdoing everything. Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Like Father, Like Son” (2013) not only inquires into such overly emotional themes, but even its story is something you come across in a soap-opera: babies switched at birth. However, Kore-eda’s narrative dynamics avoids all kinds of redundancy and makes the movie, one of his most genuinely heart-breaking works.    

                                   Kore-eda is one of Japan’s most respected contemporary film-makers, whose static camera compositions and familial dispositions paid great tribute to Japanese cinematic master Yasujiro Ozu. But, over the years, he has developed a style and voice of his own, surpassing most of his peers. He also has an exceptional gift for working with children. Like Ozu, he’s a sharp observer of family life, of its feelings (that are universal). His works exude gentleness and delicacy without stooping to cheap sentiments. He transforms a trite premise into a moving poetry.

                                   The unassuming family drama opens with a mischievous interview scene, where the adorable six year old Keita (Keita Ninomiya) sits between his parents, Ryota and Midori Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama and Machicko Ono), and playfully answers the questions to join in a posh private school. Keita’s father Ryota is a workaholic architect and a very rigid father. He imposes certain rules in the household and asks Keita to daily practice Piano, just because he likes to play. Ryota thinks his son is ‘quitter’ and doesn’t worry about losing. Midori is a very kindly mother, who treasures her son, since she cannot have any more children. When Midori says that she got a phone call from the hospital where Keita was born, Ryota says, “I hope it’s nothing messy.” Alas, his hope fails.

                                   The hospital management states that the boy they have been raising is not their biological son. The babies have been swapped (the reason only stated later in a painful courtroom scene). Keita’s biological father Yudai Saiki (Riri Furanki) is a slacker, who runs a scruffy appliance store. His wife Yukari Saiki (Yoko Maki) shares her husband’s relaxed attitudes and caringly raises her three children, one of whom is Ryusei (Shogun Hwang) – the Ryota and Midori’s biological son. It is clear that the Saiki’s are several rungs below Ryota’s in social ladder. The families meet each other and neither set of parents want to rush, although the hospital management insists that children are in the right age to make the switch.

                                Ryota, the perfectionist, obsessively thinks how this mistake could have been made. He meets an upper crust lawyer and asks if there is any chance to raise both Keita and Ryusei. Yukai, the other family-head, focuses on the potential settlement money from the hospital management. The couples, at first begin a trial run, switching the children on weekends. This only leads to further complications and Ryota feels that his unshakable assurance is threatened on number of fronts. It all leads to a question: what’s best for the children, most importantly for the parents.  Thankfully, there are no villains in this movie, since every character is nuanced and realistic.

                                 I wasn’t very much impressed, when I watched the movie for the first time. May be I expected something more dramatic or maybe I thought that the focus will be more on the children. But, Kore-eda, unlike his previous movies “Nobody Knows”, “I Wish”, has chosen to focus on the adult male of a patriarchal society. After a couple of repeated viewings, I could now understand that Kore-eda wanted to make a statement/criticism on the traditional role of the man in Japanese society. Although baby swapping is the crux of story, the film is fully about Ryota and his views on parenthood. Many intellectuals often repeat that identity has nothing to do with one’s class. However, that’s not the reality. Kore-eda subtly handles this politics of class, enunciating that class differences do matter, because that’s what inflames the emotions of our everyday life.  Kore-eda must have deliberately chosen two families that are polar opposites in terms of class.

                             ‘Whom do you think will have a better life: Keita or Ryusei?’ If this is the question the film-maker asks us then the movie would for sure resemble a schmaltzy drama. But, Kore-eda’s innate empathetic nature explores the character of Ryota -- the perfect guy we would love to hate. Ryota forces Keita to practice piano daily without giving a thought that whether Keita likes to play Piano. “I’d like to get custody of both kids”, he says to his lawyer. He never pays attention to other’s emotions. In a typical Hollywood or Bollywood movie, the suited, rich Ryota would be the villain and the poor, slothful Yukai would be the hero. For the initial 30 0r 40 minutes, Ryota is just a stereotypical character, but gradually Kore-eda steers our attention fully on Ryota by providing nuanced details.

                               As it turns out, Ryota has had a problematic relationship with his overbearing father. His father asks him to make the swap and believes that “as with racehorses, it's all about bloodlines" (which is also the belief of the son). Ryota has ignored his stepmother, refuses to call her ‘mom’, even though she was very kind to him (kinder than his biological mother, who abandoned him).  By watching his father, we could clearly guess that his roots of remoteness are transmitted to him, like some genetic disease. So, Kore-eda challenges Ryota’s aristocratic view of bloodlines through scenarios that shakes him up the way he didn’t anticipate.

                                 He is made to think about his past and he gradually acquires empathy. In the courtroom scene, the nurse who attended Midori (Ryota’s wife) recalls her crime. She says that she deliberately switched the babies to wreak havoc upon their upper class lives. The nurse, who has now become a caring mother (step-mother), regrets for her crime. The nurse, later, gives some money to Ryota through his lawyer, which forces Ryota to make a trip to her house. At first, this scene might seem unnecessary because we might think that he is just going to confront her with angry words. But, that exactly doesn’t happen. As the nurse opens her door, he returns the money with a furious look. Suddenly, the nurse’s son comes out of the house and stares at Ryota. He says, “It has nothing to do with you.” The boy replies, “It has. She’s my mother.” Ryota expressions change, as he pats the boy and walks away without saying a word. In the next scene, Ryota sits inside his car and calls his step-mother, asking her forgiveness, for not supporting her. This scene plus the next one in the forest were all concocted to show Ryota’s changing nature (not to forget the scene where Ryota checks his DSLR). Although these sequences serve a singular purpose, they are unique in the way Kore-eda handles the character’s emotions.

                             The director is very careful not to portray Yudai Saiki (the head of other family) as an ideal father. Yudai has his own set of flaws: he is repeatedly looking for ways to siphon as much cash out of the apologetic hospital as possible. He might be an easy going dad and say things like, "being a father is the most important job in the world", but Kore-eda incites us with the knowledge of his imperfections, which are subtle enough to view it from an non-judgmental point of view.

                               In the film, no one asks the children, ‘how they feel?’ Some might think that it is a flaw, but in such real situation no one would try to understand the wishes of a six year old wouldn't be taken into account. Even though, the children are the ones who have to bear more pain – they aren't even allowed to speak with the man and women they previously called "Dad" and "Mom" --   the adults will try to rationalize the situation only from their view. Kore-eda offers a glimmer of hope in the end for the families without any over-dramatic schemes. Masaharu Fukuyama plays the titular father character -- one of Japan's leading singer and actor. The sense of turmoil he shows in his face is brilliant. Ono as the mother, Midori, is the movie’s quiet soul. In one of her beautiful scene, on a train, she wistfully asks Keita, “Shall the two of us run away together? Somewhere nobody knows?” All the four kids are unbearably cute, especially Keita makes our heart-ache.

Director Kore-eda with Shogun Hwang and Keita

                              “Like Father, Like Son” exudes universal emotions that are relatable to potentially broad audience, whatever their marital or generational status. Kore-eda’s final and most important message is clearly intended for Japanese archetype male. The message was not just portrayed through Ryota’s change for the better, but also through the words of Ryota’s boss. "You've always kept your foot on the gas pedal, right? It's about time for you to brake," the old boss tells him. Ryota in a confused mind-set asks him, "But you got this far because you kept going." To which, the boss replies, “That, was another time.” Kore-eda says to a workaholic family man, especially the post-war, hardworking Japanese male to balance his life with leisure and love.

                               It really is a privilege to watch a movie like “Like Father, Like Son” (121 minutes), where humanity shines through every frame. Hirokazu Kore-eda surely has extracted the maximum from one of the modest cinematic plot. Watch it with patience and without expecting calculated answers.   


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