Japanese writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda has explored the turmoil of children separated from their loved ones in a pair of emotionally difficult films: Nobody Knows, in which a mother abandons her children suddenly; and in last year's immaculate I Wish, in which brothers are split between their divorced parents. In both occasions focus was squarely on the plight of the children, but he shifts gears with the gentle, enriching Like Father, Like Son, a film that asks the question: What does it mean to be a parent?
With his reliably controlled style, Koreeda's film explores issues of nature vs. nature with a subtle, humanistic touch. When we first meet highly-motivated engineer Ryota Nonomiya (Fukurama Masaharu), he and wife Midori (Ono Machiko) are watching their 6-year-old son Keita give all-too-perfect answers during an entrance interview at a prestigious school. We soon discover the answers were a lie, fed to him by his father to give the impression their family really is perfect. Ryota is a good man, ambitious and driven, and provides his family a life in which they want for nothing. He drills into his son all the tools to be just like him, but one thing Ryota can't seem to find is paternal instinct. There's love in the Nonomiya family, but affection is a different story.
So when the hospital where Keita was born calls and says the son Midori gave birth to was switched with another, Ryota coldly remarks "Now it makes sense...” It turns out their actual son Ryusei lives with Yudai and Yukari Saiki (Lily Franky and Yoko Maki), lower middle-class store owners with two other children. They live in another part of the store, and may not have everything the Nonomiya's have in terms of wealth, but they make up for it with a care-free lifestyle and a genuine closeness that is infectious.
As all of Koreeda's films note in some way, children are more resilient than adults give them credit for, and as the parents meet and come to the decision to make an exchange, the boys adapt to their surroundings with ease. The switch begins slowly with each son staying with their natural parents on weekends, and while it's meant to make things easier for the children, it's the parents who need the time most. The boys are opened up to a number of different opportunities, both professional and emotional, but for the parents it's about bonding with sons who are total strangers.
Ryota sees this as an opportunity to prove that the disconnect he felt with Keita was their lack of blood relation, and seeks to fix it with Ryusei. Meanwhile, Keita has blended in seamlessly with the Saikis, enjoying the close-knit bond with his new siblings and Yudai's playfulness. These are things he's never experienced before, and seeing him acclimate so easily rubs Ryota the wrong way. He gets a half-baked notion that he can simply buy off the Saikis and keep both boys, but when they take offense it forces him to reevaluate everything. The narrative shifts its focus mainly to Ryota as he struggles to bond with Ryusei, forcing him to explore his own troubled upbringing.
Koreeda isn't a director who works in broad strokes, evolving his characters with a gentle, gradual touch. And as usual the naturalistic, instinctive performances he's able to draw out are mesmerizing, especially by the youngest stars. The film has been picked up for a remake by none other than Steven Spielberg, who perhaps should have started out with the more adventurous I Wish, and it'll be interesting to see what changes are made to make these characters relatable for American audiences. The Japanese culture is very different from ours, and Ryota's ambition at the expense of family is more normal to them. He's not a bad guy or a bad parent, but a flawed man living in a culture that values professional success nearly as much as personal. Even though the blue-collar Saikis are portrayed as a little too perfect at times, there are no real villains to contend with. Koreeda recognizes that in situations such as this, there are no villains, just simple parents trying to do what's best for their kids. It does seem as if this point is made pretty early on, and while other important issues are raised there's a sense that the film is circling the drain.
There aren't any easy answers to the posed question, but the film suggests that being a parent requires immeasurable patience and benevolence. Vital and full of heart, Koreeda's Like Father, Like Son is another quiet jewel that shouldn't be missed.