Compared with the soapy family dramas that movie audiences are accustomed to, “Like Father, Like Son” is polished crystal, so clear and personal in its presentation that you feel part of the families it follows, even after the movie has ended.
Anyone who has ever been a parent, or a child, can relate to the situation facing the two couples at the center of the story, contrived though it is. When their sons are 6, there comes a call from the hospital where the boys were born. Somehow, the babies were switched. The children the parents are raising are not their “real” sons.
Director Hirokazu Kore-eda, who also wrote the story, has a well-defined cultural canvas on which this wrenching dilemma plays out. One father (Masaharu Fukuyama) works in Japan’s modern and competitive corporate business climate, staying late, showing up on Saturdays, leaving his home and family to be managed by his wife, who struggles to meet his standards. Their son Keita (the unbelievably adorable Keita Ninomiya) is testing for private school, trying to follow the instructions of his “cram teacher” and practicing the piano in his free time. (He’s not very good at it.)
The other family is “old Japan,” with three children and a small shrine to their ancestors in a small apartment behind the family shop. This dad would rather play with the kids than get steadier work, and mom is tired but mom.
With boys who are already 6, the parents face a horrible choice. Do we keep the sons we know and love, who we have raised and nurtured in our own image, who define our family – or does blood rule out?
At the initial meeting, Ryota, the affluent father, can barely conceal his shock at the other family, the slightly disheveled Yukari and Yudai, with their mismatched clothes and middle-class ways. As the hospital officials talk about their options and point out that in other cases, virtually 100 percent of the families exchange the children, Yukari and Yudai are stunned.
“It’s not like a pet,” one says. “I couldn’t exchange a pet either,” the other responds.
Ryota and his wife are more quietly stricken. They have invested so much in Keita, and the other family doesn’t even have a clear photo of their son.
Some directors could get ham-handed here, playing up the families’ differences and putting a wedge between them. That isn’t what happens, and the interplay with these delightfully authentic little boys and the parents who are desperate to find a way out of this inconceivable mess captures you in all its painful, revealing detail.
There is more to being a family than blood, and there is more to being a father than having expectations. And there is much more to this movie than a “cat’s cradle” conundrum. Even though it is in Japanese with subtitles, its message and its beauty couldn’t be more clear.