Japanese Title: そして父になる
Romaji: Soshite Chichi ni Naru
Release Date: September 28th. 2013 (Japan)
Seen at the BFI London Film Festival 2013
Running Time: 120 mins.
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Writer: Hirokazu Koreeda (Screenplay)
Starring: Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono, Yoko Maki, Jun Fubuki, Keita Ninomiya, Shogen Hwang, Lily Franky, Jun Kunimura, Kiki Kirin, Isao Natsuyagi
The Nonomiya family are happy. Ryota (Fukuyama) is a stern and demanding father and a successful architect dedicated to his work while his loyal wife Midori (Ono) dotes on their adorably cute six-year-old son Keita (Nonomiya). The three live quietly and comfortably in a luxurious apartment. Although Keita seems to lack his father’s qualities of determination and ruthlessness, he is a studious, quiet and loyal son who idolises his father and tries to emulate him. With Keita about to enter Ryota’s old school, life seems to be going according to plan.
Then Midori receives a phone call from the hospital where she gave birth to Keita six years ago informing her that their child was switched with another male baby and that their birth-son is with another set of parents. This news shatters the Ninomiya’s certainties and the hospital insists that both sets of parents meet.
Enter the Saiki family led by confident hard-working mother Yukari (Maki) and scatter-brained father Yudai (Franky). They are the polar-opposites of the Ninomiyas, Yudai runs a down at heel electronics store while Yukari works at a fast food parlour. Working class but still decent folk, their parenting style is more laid back than the Ninomiya’s which has produced three uninhibited children who are ebullient and fizzing with energy. This is who Ryota and Midori’s birth-son is with. Given the name Ryusei (Hwang), he is the eldest of three children and is the complete opposite of Keita, outgoing and tougher, he is a rough but good-natured child.
At the hospital’s insistence the parents’ initiate a twelve-month period where they get to know each other and try exchanging boys. Keita seems to take to the Saiki family easily but Ryusei’s brash temperament clashes with Ryota’s strict attitudes. Now both couples face a difficult decision over whether to hand over their sons who they have carefully raised for the last six years and take back their biological son or not.
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son comes fresh off the back of glowing critical praise from its festival run and winning the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Kore-eda specialises in chronicling modern Japanese families and this film examines what constitutes fatherhood, a subject close to his heart since he has recently become a new father himself. Through this examination it takes in wider themes of how love, expectations and society can shape a family unit and people’s definition of themselves and their connections to others.
An apt comparison might be the 2011 film Rebirth (The Eighth Day of the Cicada), a title about motherhood and whether blood or emotions shown define who can be a mother. Like Father, Like Son all about being a father and unfolds over a shorter time period in a linear narrative full of more normal everyday events so that through watching the lives of the Saiki’s and Nonomiya’s, and with a particular focus on Ryota’s journey of redefining what fatherhood means to him, we get a carefully poised and complex film surging with emotions that are universal and are guaranteed to move any viewer.
What Kore-eda does so well is to capture extraordinary performances from children and the everyday slice-of-life events that come to mean so much to people, the precious times spent together and the affection shown. It is these elements that make the film so potent because it grounds us in the reality of the characters and makes them very human.
Kore-eda uses his familiar cinematic technique of letting his camera stand still to capture these moments in mid-focus shots which allows the audience to see people behaving naturally, the way children bounce with joy when playing with adults, the way mothers caress the heads of their offspring and fathers beam with pride over the success of a son. This technique is used with a script that favours mirroring which allows the audience to see the contrasts between the two families, the Nonomiya’s and Saiki’s, and their approaches parenting. Through this technique we get to know how characters behave (watch Keita mimic his father’s posture!) and thus what they believe and love so we understand how they and their ideas of family change and become wrapped up in the realities they face which makes the drama at the heart of the film so affecting.
First we have the Nonomiya’s who are outwardly successful but the more we see of their lives the more we question how happy they really are. Ryota is one type of father, a demanding uptight typical patriarch who follows the traditional role expected from males in Japanese society. Hard working and diligent at his job, he pushes Keita to work hard himself while he makes all of the important decisions so Midori and Keita do not have to but finds it hard to express himself emotionally and uses his work and its financial rewards (an expensive car and a well-furnished apartment as bland as a hotel) to justify his absence from home leaving the more caring side of the relationship to Midori.
Opposite him is Yudai, a man much more at ease with life and gentle with his children. He cares not a jot for appearances, especially if he can play games with his children. Fatherhood is something totally different for him. It is not about living up to roles or being stern but the time spent with people and showing love. As such he is a father who loves rough-housing with his kids, playing teacher as lets them see him fix toys in his workshop and playing target as they throw balls at him in playpens and trample over him. He loves every minute and so do his kids and while his wife Yukari is the one who has to do most of the thinking, one cannot deny the joy the entire family have when interacting with him and the care he shows them. He may not have money but he has love.
As much as it is a film about the fathers and the contrasts between them, it is about how the children come to make the parents define themselves. Through the emotional connections that are extended and retracted and the boy’s actions the emotional tone of the relationships are affected which makes the parents’ have to decisions harder.
Keita seems better off with the Saiki’s and their easy-going life especially when he is interacting with his siblings and mimics Yukari’s actions but it is heart-wrenching hearing him make phone-calls to Midori and the way he holds onto her. Ryusei’s surliness at being separated from what and who he knows causes an equally potent reaction but instead of internalising his problems like Keita he acts out and this has surprising resonances for some of the characters.
The adults are seemingly incapable of controlling the children and are unable to stop their emotional attachment to their children much like the audience. Wisely, they learn from the various situations that they are forced into.
As much as the focus is on the fathers’ and sons’, the mothers’ are also given parts with some meat. Midori and Yukari are also opposites in the same way Yudai and Ryota are. Yukari is clearly the more independent of the two, used to taking responsibility. Her reaction to the news is a pure and utter pragmatism tinged with a little sadness over the situation. Midori’s journey is rockier. The news of switched babies seems to compound the sense that she has given up her independence and her sense of isolation from her husband becomes an ever-present emotion that she can no longer repress as she questions her value as a mother. How could she have missed the fact that Keita is not their son? Every slight ever experienced comes to haunt her and she comes to question her relationship with Ryota and Keita.
Other characters played by great actors (Isao Natsuyagi, Jun Fubuki, Jun Kunimura) get small but important parts as they offer varying debates over parenting like the importance of blood and recounting tales of how children were adopted during the war. This adds context for all of the emotional changes as we follow the two boys and their fluctuating connections with their families and so when characters do achieve emotional growth it is believable. As Ryota remarks in the film, there’s room for all sorts of families, but by the end you know that Koreeda is placing the happiness of children first. How can it be otherwise?
The film ends on a well-earned emotionally rewarding low-key climax that suggests Ryota has grown, learned to be more empathetic and willing to adapt to others. Lessons learned, as the camera slowly pulls back we can be sure he will at least try and become both a better father and husband.
I’m glad I saw this in a cinema at the BFI London Film Festival. It is a fantastically written and acted film that moved me (I tried to resist it and maintain my composure, believe me) and being part of an audience made the emotions all the more febrile. It is visually arresting and another example of Kore-eda’s high degree of skill in crafting moving dramas.