A meditation on the ties that bind, Hirokazu Koreeda’s Like Father Like Son is a delicately Japanese exploration of fatherhood, blood and ambition.
Like Father, Like Son
There Will Be Blood by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It’s a popular set-up for many a film, the babies switched at birth scenario, across genres from the parental horrors of The Omen and the socio-politics of The Other Son to, most recently, magical realism in Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children. But now it’s the turn of the domestic melodrama to turn this plot twist into tragedy. And with Hirokazu Koreeda’s Like Father Like Son, it’s a painful process filled with self-reproach, maternal guilt and an unhealthy dose of nurses conniving to make the rich elite share her pain. Seen for the most part through father Ryota’s eyes, Like Father Like Son is a journey into fatherhood that begins six years too late for son Keita, as the aspirational, career-building disciplinarian learns to make time to play, love and empathise, finally seeing the world through his son’s eyes. But with its question of what it means to be a father – is it blood or bond – Like Father Like Son offers a keen insight into contemporary Japan. Hirokazu Koreeda’s film poses the question of what it means to be a father – is it the blood tie passed down from generation to generation or the years spent being a father – the relationship forged through time? And while Koreeda eventually comes down unambiguously on the side of the paternal bond, Like Father Like Son is a fascinating foray into Japanese family ties.
Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) is a successful businessman, working all the hours God sends to stay one step ahead on the career ladder. He lives in a luxury apartment in Tokyo with his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) and son Keita (Keita Ninomiya). But after a phone call from the country hospital where Midori gave birth, revealing that their biological baby had been swapped with another, husband and wife are thrown into turmoil – forced to choose between keeping the boy they’ve raised for six years or their biological son. They meet the other couple – loving parents but country folk who run a hardware store, and exchange their sons at weekends to get to know them. The relationship turns fractious after Ryota makes an offer to look after both boys, but with the deadline only a few months away, all four parents are forced to make an impossible decision.
There’s a very real danger that Like Father, Like Son might turn out like a saccharine TV movie, with its slow-mo title sequence of schoolchildren making balloons out of paper and plastic bags. But with a ruthless businessman taking charge of this domestic situation, there’s no danger of that. Ryota is already disappointed that Keita has inherited his mother’s good-natured deliberateness, keen for his son to excel, thrust and succeed. He’s been brought up with all the good manners of a refined Japanese boy as befits his public schooling, and he knows how to hold his chopsticks properly, but Keita’s underachievement at a piano recital is felt keenly by his father with humiliating disappointment. And while it turns out there’s an explanation to all these underachievements, Ryusei is no better. And after the couples agree to the swap and Ryusei moves in with them, he can only thump the keyboard and bring life to their orderly home with a pretend gunfight. With neither Ryusei nor Keita happy in their new homes, Like Father, Like Son skilfully sketches the drawn-out, painful tension of unhappy children, as well as the bittersweet irony as Ryota, bonding with his family for the first time, starts to take notice of the son he never really had.
The loaded gun in the Nonomiya household is the camera Keita refuses to take with him, filled with images of his father either at work or asleep, either way oblivious to his son’s presence. And it’s the catalyst to Ryota’s transformation from businessman to father. But en route, there’s also a fascinating insight into Japanese culture as wife Midori leaves all the decision-making to her husband. And despite the hospital doctors’ assurances that the majority of couples in these cases do, it seems almost unfathomable that all three other parents would simply agree to the swap. It may be a necessary plot turn, determined by the script, but it’s part of an overarching deference to the businessman’s sway, as he organises the group’s lawyer and takes charge of the nurse’s good-will money. For Ryota is not only the film’s protagonist and very male moral touchstone, but also the thinker and doer before which all women, children, geriatrics and countryfolk must bow.
For Koreeda, it’s a personal theme – fatherhood and coming to terms with the identity shift paternity brings, and Like Father, Like Son‘s basic premise is likely to set pulses racing for biological parents the world over. It’s perhaps testament to Japanese culture, isolated for centuries, that sets such store by blood purity over paternal bonding. But while it’s this cultural crisis that brings the cracks in their relationships to the fore, reducing Midori and Ryota from the perfect couple to TV melodrama victims, beyond the nature versus nurture quandary Like Father, Like Son is a simple but profound reassertion of a father’s love – with neither aspiration nor expectation. Selfless and with no strings attached, being a father might just be child’s play after all.
Like Father, Like Son is released on 18th October 2013