In one of his most notorious quotes Yasujiro Ozu mused ‘I just want to make a tray of good tofu. If people want something else, they should go to the restaurants and shops.’ What the Japanese auteur was insinuating was a dedication to his own distinctive film making style and a dismissal of experimentation for experimentation’s sake. The same could equally be applied to his fellow native director Hirokazu Kore-eda, who has often been likened to Ozu for both his minimalistic aesthetic and concentration on family matters. As with his previous film I Wish, Kore-eda has trained his focus on issues of class, parenthood and childhood.
It is actually remarkably similar to I Wish. That particular film focused on two brothers living with separate parents and kept apart by distance and their upbringing. In Like Father, Like Son we again have two sons from differing backgrounds, but this time it is a case of mistaken identity. Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) is a workaholic high flyer living in the city with his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) and young son Keita (Keita Ninomiya). Their life comes to an abrupt halt when they get a phone call from Keita’s birth hospital informing them that there was a mix up with the babies; Keita is not their son. Soon the family are introduced to Ryusei (Shogen Hwang), their biological son, and his working class family out in the sticks.
Like I Wish, it is an intriguing and playful experimentation with the idea of families. If I Wish, perused the notion of parental guidance and what it means to be family, then Like Father, Like Son pushes the idea one step further. Ryota is desperate for Keita to be a winner in life and baulks at his son’s perceived softness. Meanwhile his wife Midori worries about the disconnection of Ryota from family life and his dedication to his job. Taking on writing duties as well, Kore-eda cleverly contrasts their uptight world with Ryusei’s family- the lackadaisical father who tells Ryota that there is nothing more important than time to a child, something Ryota cannot dispense.
As the two families begin to see more of each other and consider the possibilities of ‘exchanging’ the children, Ryota starts to question the meaning of parenthood and family; is blood more important than the time he has spent bringing up Keita? Kore-eda refrains from giving the audience easy answers to the questions he asks of them, leaving us with a complex and subtle drama. In fact, I would place it up alongside his earlier film After Life as one of Kore-eda’s best works. Framed around a series of vignettes, the film does begin to lag slightly in the second half when the two boys move homes, but picks up again for a cathartic yet understated ending.
The performances are subtle and nuanced, while the children are sprightly and naturalistic. Kore-eda uses his customary static framing to observe the action without judgement. The melancholic piano score does threaten to over sentimentalise the scenes but this is only a small flaw in the film. Although Like Father, Like Son is steeped in Japanese culture, it has a universal appeal that conveys the complexities of both family and parenthood.