Like Father, Like Son is a comedy-drama about the nature vs. nurture debate written and directed by the acclaimed filmmaker Kore-eda Hirokazu. Two families (the Nonomiya and the Saiki families) lives are turned upside down when they inadvertently discover that their sons (Keita and Ryusei – played by Keita Yukari and Shogen Whang respectively) were switched in the hospital shortly after their births. The rest of the film is taken up with examining how the parents cope with this discovery and whether they decide to keep the child they’ve raised or swap them.
Central to this issue is the question of whether you can raise a child as your own or if there is something in the blood, which makes the time spent together (here six years) null and void. Nonomiya Ryota (Fukuyama Masaharu), the film’s ultimate protagonist, is a hard-working and somewhat cold individual. He has always been slightly disappointed by his son Keita, who he finds to be a rather mediocre child. Following the revelation that Keita is indeed not Ryota’s son, Ryota exclaimed, “It makes sense.” Ryota and his wife Midori (Ono Machiko) find themselves drawn towards their much more active and confident biological son Ryusei, finding similarities in him that they never found in Keita. These ideas about childhood – whether a child’s personality is the result of his parent’s genes or of his surroundings and upbringing – are played with throughout the film. At one rather funny moment, Ryota watches as Ryusei and his ‘father’ Yudai (Lily Franky) both chew on the end of their straws, clearly worrying that the smart, industrious son that he feels he deserves has neglected his potential thanks to the parenting of the frivolous and childish Yudai.
For two hours, Kore-eda spins out this happy-sad funny-grim yarn, keeping it fairly interesting and involving along the way. Though dramatic – if not potentially traumatic – Kore-eda keeps things light and, disappointingly, conventional. It has been suggested that the film’s Jury Prize win at this year’s Cannes Film Festival had something to do with Steven Spielberg, head of the jury, seeing something of a match here with his own artistic sensibilities – dark, grim but light and sentimental.
Aside from the nature vs. nurture stuff that the film plays around with, the film is mainly about different forms of fatherhood, with Ryota representing the tough, authoritarian type who shows his love for his child through a philosophy of being hard on a child so that it will be better later. Yudai, meanwhile, is more playful. He bathes with his kids, he is always late and constantly brings himself down to their level. While Ryota may make an adult out of his kid, they would have a lot more fun with Yudai. There are class implications here as well, with Ryota looking down at Yudai’s place of work and home (the same slightly rundown place) while his own house and place of work are tall, impersonal towers – his home frequently compared to a hotel room. Ryota wonders if he shouldn’t take both sons in order to safeguard their futures or, in other words, to save them from a life like Yudai’s. This, sadly, is an all too believable way of thinking (Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone is so taken with the idea that it even suggests that childless middle class parents are justified in kidnapping working class kids for their own good), and suggests that the film might be making a point. And yet the film does not go much further than this – although admittedly the scene in which he embarrassedly blurts it out to Yudai is very unexpected and funny. Ryota is inevitably made to feel guilty for having such thoughts and redeemed while Yudai’s parenting methods are never seen in a negative light. Kore-eda sets up a fruitful situation but is ultimately unwilling to pursue it much beyond a simplistic Hollywood reading. For one thing, the mothers Midori and Yukari (Maki Yoko), where the drama ought to find all the pain and anguish it would need, are particularly underdeveloped. They are instead relegated to the sidelines, watching the men sort it, and themselves, out.
So while Like Father, Like Son is likable, funny, interesting, nicely-shot and full of good performances (even amongst the younger actors – Kore-eda is noted for his work with child actors), it is disappointingly tame. It doesn’t go as far as it might have. However, though a fault, it is one that is easy to see past. After all, one would not expect more from, say, Hollywood and it would a mistake to expect more of a film just because it happens to be Japanese. So although the film does not go anywhere dark or risky, this was not Kore-eda’s intention. And as a light, conventional family drama, Like Father, Like Son, though slightly overlong, stands out from the rest for its invention, sincerity and warmth. And it’s not overly tacky.