At the heart of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son is a study in contrasts. On one side we have the upper-middle-class Nonomiya family. Father, mother and well-behaved six-year-old boy reside in a spacious apartment in a modern high-rise, every room immaculate in its tastefulness; whether donning business or casual attire, they all dress well, if blandly; when first we see them they’re being interviewed for a high-end school, and even the manner in which they’re seated, postures erect, with just the right distance separating their chairs, exudes order and exactitude. Nonomiya patriarch Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) works hard, rarely takes a day off, and seems the pride of his company.
The Saikis, meanwhile, mother, father and three kids, live in a set of cramped, cluttered rooms attached to their modest suburban appliance store. Yudai (Rirî Furankî) seems perpetually disheveled, wears garish pattern combinations, is openly thrifty, unabashed about looking for a handout, and happy to avoid work. His motto: “Put off for tomorrow whatever you can.” The upshot is that he’s more amiable than Ryota, spends more time with his family, and seems able to fix anything.
If directorial style is anything to go on, Kore-eda clearly relates more to Ryota—though he might envy Yudai. Kore-eda’s films, which include After Life (1998), Nobody Knows (2004) and Still Walking (2008), are clean, intelligent yet humble, subtle, even somber, and overwhelmingly favour symmetry. In the case of Like Father, Like Son, this symmetry is heightened by the use of Gould’s Goldberg Variations and other piano pieces that at times have the unfortunate effect of leveling the film’s emotional spectrum. It is to their enormous advantage that several of these films, which have regularly focused on families, feature adorable, fascinating, expressive children, which either Japan has a surplus of or Kore-eda and his casting directors have an exceptional knack for tracking down. Children bring life and merry disorder to Kore-eda’s films, and Like Father, Like Son concerns the fates of two children: Keita (Keita Ninomiya), the Nonomiyas’ boy, and Ryusei (Shogen Hwang), the Saikis’. The film begins with the belated discovery that Keita and Ryusei were switched at birth, and the central dilemma is about whether the families should swap the kids or leave them with the families who’ve raised them so far. From the instant resentment that Ryota feels toward his wife when the truth comes out to her growing guilt over dividing her love between two boys, to the peculiar ways in which the boys adapt to their changing living arrangements, there’s so much in Like Father, Like Son, in all its characterizations and individual journeys, that is observant, sensitive and wise. But the film’s protagonist, the one whose capacity for change will determine the story’s outcome, is Ryota. I won’t be so presumptuous as to say that Ryota is a stand-in for Kore-eda, but I like the fact that Kore-eda is willing to invest so much in his film’s least likeable character.
The premise is sensational, but the execution is anything but. At times I found Kore-eda’s pacing too deliberate; admirable, dutiful, and a little dull. But the Saikis come along often enough to throw everything a little off-kilter, and while Kore-eda refrains from sentimentality or facile resolution, he understands what emotional pay-off will come from Ryota’s gradual realization that he might be able to better his life by learning a thing or two from this family he quietly despises.