What happens when your vision of family is suddenly uprooted? How does one react when this longstanding perspective is revealed to be entirely wrongheaded? Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda considers such complex and potentially troubling dilemmas through the arrogant character of Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) in the new drama Like Father, Like Son. As a result, the film expresses a quiet disdain for old-fashioned traditions that disavow tenderness in favor of formality.
A wealthy architect with an obedient and thoughtful wife named Midori (Machiko Ono) and a young son vying for a spot in a prestigious pre-school, Ryota has seemingly constructed the perfect life for himself. The opening interview sequence finds the stoic family answering questions in front of an admittance committee, revealing a clear gender-defined hierarchy. But this early portrait of stability is built on straw. It all comes crashing down (at least in Ryota's mind) when a country hospital informs them that their real son was switched at birth and they've been raising another couple's child all this time.
The dramatic news sends a shockwave of doubt and insecurity down Ryota's spine. All the work he's done to mold the young boy in his own image now feels tainted. But it's this sense of personal failure that drives a very smart man to act selfishly in response to the difficult situation. When Ryota and Midori begin to spend time with the other affected couple, a mechanic named Yudai (Rirî Furankî ) and his wife Yukari (Yôko Maki), and the their two young boys become friends, betrayal seems imminent on the horizon.
"There's room for all kinds of families," Ryota says, but it's apparent he doesn't truly believe this is possible.
Considering Kore-eda's appreciation for understated patterns of emotion sprinkled with hints of sentiment, Like Father, Like Son—which runs from Friday, Feb. 14, through Thursday, Feb. 20, at Hillcrest Cinemas—never threatens to cross over into full-blown melodrama. Instead, it quietly follows Ryota as he experiences the multiple phases of grief and slowly learns that blood is not nearly as thick as family. The process is elongated and complicated simply because Ryota is dealing with his own daddy issues, feelings of inadequacy and torment.
While thematically simpler than some of the director's gems (check out the great Nobody Knows and Still Walking for a taste of his genius), Like Father, Like Son nonetheless explores deep psychological territory. As an actor, Fukuyama presents a stubborn and flawed man who veers away from redemption at every turn despite showing genuine flashes of kindness and love. One early scene between Ryota and his son playing the piano together makes a point of showing their hands pressing the keys in close-up. But as the film progresses, we start to see a distance in the images that reflects Ryota's growing isolation.
Herein lies Like Father, Like Son's most damning critique of confused patriarchy. Unlike the children in the film, or even the two mothers, who see the world as a place full of possibility, Ryota refuses to shift his ironclad view of family. This ideology negatively impacts those around him in an almost seamless way. All signs of laughter and joy fade away, replaced with silence and coldness.
It's worth noting that Kore-eda avoids judging the very character that judges everyone around him. This almost makes Ryota's potential downfall more staggering, ever transparent to the inquisitive, objective eye. An angrier filmmaker would have crucified the man, but Kore-eda never gives up on him, and, therefore, the audience doesn't either. This sober belief in good will and change makes the final act of Like Father, Like Son a revelatory window into a possible future defined by togetherness.