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Like Father, Like Son

February 15, 2014
Like Father Like Son

Kore-eda Hirokazu is Japan’s premiere cinematic poet of families in crisis, if not the world’s. With Like Father, Like Son he digs deep into well-trodden ground and still comes up with something new and sadly beautiful. While not as fun and enjoyable a childhood romp as his previous offering, I Wish, Kore-eda’s latest is emotionally richer and maybe more satisfying in the long run.

Nonomiya Ryota (Fukuyama Masaharu) is a rising star in an architectural firm, the very model of the Japanese workaholic salaryman. He does try to be a good and affectionate husband to his wife, Midori (Ono Machiko) and his young son, Keita (Ninomiya Keita), who has just passed his entrance exams into a prestigious elementary school, but work generally comes first. He is driven to succeed, and he’s frustrated when his efforts to instill that drive in his son only go so far.

And then the call comes: the hospital near Midori’s hometown, where Keita was born, wants to talk to them. It seems that, despite preventative measures being in place for decades, Keita may have been switched at birth. A DNA test confirms it: the Nonomiya’s biological son went home with repairman and shopkeeper Saiki Yukari and his wife Yudai (Maki Yôko and Furankî Rirî), and has been raised as Ryusei (Hwang Shôgen).

The Saiki family are country bumpkins compared to the yuppies Ryo wants his family to be. They live in a disorganized flat above Yukari’s shop with his father and Ryusei’s two younger siblings. They even take their baths together in a tiny tub. But their house is filled with raucous laughter and racing footsteps rather than genial pleasantries and Keita’s piano practice.

Yukari is mostly concerned with how much they can get from the hospital in damages; Ryo is focused on blood relations. But since Ryo counts a lawyer among his old school pals he takes the lead in making arrangements. Ryo clearly sees Yukari as a money-grubber — he even play-acts complaints of whiplash while romping with his kids — and gets the idea that he and Midori might be able to buy off the Saikis and raise both boys.

The switched-at-birth story and its nature-versus-nurture consequences are not new, and neither is the idea that the rich might try to use their greater resources as leverage against the less well-off. But Kore-eda mines both grounds in his usual, contemplative style. Fukuyama and Maki each render their characters with impressive subtleties; neither one is all he appears to be at first glance. Kore-eda’s script manages to point to all sorts of nuance and complications without feeling the need to explore each one in detail. And, of course, he always gets incredible performances out of his youngest actors.

Yet again, Kore-eda Hirokazu continues to produce the most gently beautiful, thoughtful family dramas in the world. And this from the country firmly cemented in the American mind as the land of anime, 47 Ronin, and all that crap from The Wolverine. More beautiful, touching films like this one, please.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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