By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist May 18, 2013 at 9:12AM
How is being a parent defined? Do you have to earn it or does the simple virtue of being related by blood automatically give you that title? Those questions and more lie at the core of "Like Father, Like Son," a tender and involving portrait by Kore-Eda Hirokazu that centers on two set of parents -- and one father in particular -- who find the relationships to their sons severely tested, forcing them to reassess everything they thought that new about them and about themselves, as well.
Ryota (Fukurama Masaharu) is a driven, successful engineer, but has little time in his six day work week for his wife Midorino (Ono Machiko) and even less for his young son Keita. But despite the imperfect balance, the entire family gives off the facade of stability. Ryota makes good money, Keita is as sharp as a tack, while Midorino lovingly dotes on her son. Keita is in the midst of the admission process to a good school, plays the piano and from all outward appearances, the Nonomiyas are the picture perfect family unit, living the dream in modern Japan. However, their world is turned upside down when the hospital where Keita was born calls with some shattering news: he is not their son, having been switched at birth with another baby born on the same day.
The Nonomiyas actual kid, Ryusei, also 6 years, is living with the Saikis, and they could not be more different. Yudai and Yukari have three children, and they all live together in the back of a general goods store, at least a level or two lower in social and economic standing than the Nonomiyas. But what they may lack in material wealth, they make up for in an exuberant affection for their children (particularly the father Yudai, played with great charm by Lily Franky), that runs in contrast to the more measured shows of affection by the Nonomiyas. The Saikis also have an almost irresponsible, devil-may-care attitude toward life itself. "I always say, put off to tomorrow, whatever you can," Yudai notes.
The two families meet, and the tough decision is made to return the six year-olds to their respective families. To help with the switchover, each child will spend a night or two per week in their new home. This is all under the guise of the helping the children get acclimated to their new living situation before it becomes permanent, but it's also a chance for the parents to get to know these new additions to their family. It's something of a paradox -- though they may be related by genes and DNA, the kids are virtual strangers to their true parents as well, with Hirokazu shading this story with some intriguing complexity that goes beyond the surface dilemma the movie presents.
As the screenplay subtly notes, these children will be forever changed in ways both big and small as they continue the rest of their lives with their new parents. Keita, who has every opportunity available to him in the home of the upwardly mobile Nonomiyas, will be entering an entirely different class of lifestyle under the roof of the Saikis, where even something as seemingly simple as the possibility of piano lessons may not be easily ascertained. On the other hand, while Ryusei will find a door opening to world he likely would not have had access to other, he's losing the warmth that he experienced at the Saikis, as well as the chance to grow up with siblings (Midorino can no longer have children).
At first, Ryota puts forth an arrogant and ill-conceived plan where he tries to convince the Saikis that he can raise both Keita and Ryusei under his roof. Unsurprisingly, the offensive offer is roundly rejected, but it forces Ryota to look inwardly at his own success as a father, and what his true feelings for Keita really are. Himself raised by someone who wasn't his mother, Ryota has a distant relationship to his own family, and has spent his life climbing the ladder, in an effort to grant as much space from them as possible. But this also caused a rift with his own wife and Keita, and hinders his ability at first to accept Ryusei, and as the film moves into the second half, it centers on Ryota's own transforming feelings on parenthood and what being a father really entails.
Evoking naturalistic performances from everyone involved (the kids are a pure delight), and with a welcome dose of humor, along with the requisite humanity he's known for, Kore-Eda Hirokazu's film is a touchingly low key, a wholly charming study of the evolution of parenthood. "Like Father, Like Son" suggests that being a Mom or Dad is a position of constant change, one that requires an open mind and even more open heart. But more crucially, it must be coupled with a willingness and excitement to be changed by offspring that will grow into their own person; a reflection of their parentage but also the world around them. Inspired by his own taste of fatherhood, Hirokazu has crafted a warm and lovely film that suggests the easiest thing about raising a child is embracing how complicated it can be. [A]