Because he’s such a precise observer of family micro-dynamics and sublime director of children, Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda (After Life, Nobody Knows) gets away with much in Like Father, Like Son, a credibility-challenging story about two Tokyo couples dealing with the revelation that their six-year-old sons were switched at birth.
Although allegedly based on a true incident, Koreeda’s story seems less interested in the nuances of any actual case than the implications for self-reckoning the circumstances might present. In particular, he’s drawn to Ryota Nonomiya (played by the Japanese recording star Masaharu Fukuyama), a career-fixated junior executive for whom the news that his son isn’t really his compels a critical confrontation with his own considerable shortcomings as a parent.
Rarely ever at home with his neglected wife Midori (Machiko Ono) and dourly formal – when not obviously disappointed – with their only boy Keita (Keita Ninomiya), it’s typical of Ryota that learning his real child has been raised by a lower-class couple, the Saikis (Yoko Maki and Riri Furanki), seems more offensive to his social than parental status. Naturally then, he sees the solution to the situation as a matter of business, and offers to raise both children in the form of a bid.
When the Saikis take reasonable offence at the suggestion and agree instead to a gradual exchange of the children over weekends, Ryota begins to understand just how little he knows about being a husband and father: With Keita’s departure and the boy Ryusei’s (Shogen Hwang) arrival, Ryota realizes he’s exchanged one unknown child for another.
It’s no surprise that Ryota is Koreeda’s focus; this is the character whose confrontation with himself is the most dramatic, subtle and revealing, and he’s a guy whose internal turmoil is primarily expressed externally: It’s in the detached way he watches the children and addresses the Saikis, and in the contrast in demeanour between Ryota the family guy and Ryota the businessman. But the hidden depths of the character are mined at the expense of everyone else, none of whom are permitted to acquire nearly the same clarity or complexity. Midori’s long and silent suffering wife is ultimately less a person than a casualty of her husband’s disregard, and the Saikis, with their chaotic domestic life, irrepressible joviality, family-first priorities and penchant for collective bathing, hover very close to romantic working-class stereotypes. Father Yukari Saiki is not only the proprietor of an appliance repair shop, he can restore even the most damaged toys to perfect working order: a hands-on superdad in other words, and everything Ryota is not.
While the case could be made that Koreeda is merely replicating the world as the blinkered Ryota sees it, the disparity between the characters’ development still leaves you feeling slightly cheated, if only because you want to see more of what this truly gifted student of human behaviour might do with them.
If you’ve seen any of Koreeda’s previous films, and especially the wrenching children-alone saga Nobody Knows, it won’t surprise you to learn that the observation of children in Like Father, Like Son is unfailingly acute: The two boys, strangers to their real parents but adaptive as only children can be, have an unself-conscious naturalism about them that permits you to see them as Ryota eventually does: entirely distinctive individuals in their own right, with quirks, characteristics and habits that not only test the nature-versus-nurture debate, but remind you of the formidable but too easily neglected responsibility of parenthood. Wherever and however they live, and whomever raises them, these kids will grow according to the world provided. It is they, and not their parents, who learn so quickly and teach so much.