TIFF13: Like Father, Like Son (2013)

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son is a wonderful film, gentle in spirit but piercing to the core of human relations, in particular the connection between parent and child and what it is that forms that connection.

The film tells the story of a family – focusing on a husband, Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama), his wife, Midori, and their son, Keita. Ryota is content in his job, pursuing ambition in the corporate world and enjoying upper middle class comfort in their Tokyo condominium. One day they receive a phone call from the hospital where Keita was born informing them that there has been a mix-up: Keita was actually switched at birth with another young boy. Their birth son, Ryusei, is being raised by a shop keeper and his wife, Yukai (the charmingly goofy Lily Franky) and Yukari Saiki, along their other two children in a town outside of Tokyo.

As the hospital informs them, most families in Japan choose to switch back. As Kore-eda himself explained in a post-screening Q&A, Japan is still quite “old-fashioned,” and the issue of blood lines being passed on father to eldest son is still a matter of great importance. Even if some cultural differences exist, the desire to see one’s own genetic material perpetuated comes pretty close to a primal urge. While it might seem unthinkable, and Midori is reluctant to consent, the families meet and experiment with switching the boys on weekends to gauge how it might go.

I remember reading reports from Cannes that chided the film for using such a tired cliché as the “switched babies” plot, but Kore-eda uses the plot as a jumping off point to explore so many important ideas, such as the power of nurture vs. nature and the role that time plays in bonding people together. The ideas actually flow naturally out of the plot, and never seem heavy-handed or excessively maudlin. Furthermore, the revelation of the switch prompts Ryota to reconsider his own relationship with his father, his “blood” father whom he never quite respected and his stepmother who raised him despite not sharing his bloodline.

While the Saiki’s cannot provide the same material wealth or opportunities that the Nonomiya’s can, their home is filled with warmth and a sense of fun. The implicit class disparities mean that any decision will have a major effect on each boy’s life. When Ryota suggests that perhaps they could raise both boys, Yukai is understandable insulted.

Since the film essentially asks us to weigh whether six years of time spent together outweighs a blood connection, it is appropriate that Kore-eda masterfully utilizes cinema’s representation of time and space to explore the idea. Framing and staging play a key role in communicating Ryota’s distance from his family. In a key sequence near the end of the film, the reverse-shot and tracking of two characters communicates their reunification elegantly.

Filled with gentle humour, but tackling such a emotion-laden issue as parent/child relations, Like Father, Like Son manages to pull at the heartstrings without ever seeming overbearing. It is a rare film that is comfortable exploring the human heart with warmth, but retaining a formal mastery that makes it both a beautiful and moving film-going experience.

9 out of 10

Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru) (2013, Japan)

Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda; starring Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono, Yoko Maki, Lily Franky

Like Father, Like Son played on September 7, and 8 during the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Special Presentations programme.