Having now watched most of Hirokazu Koreeda’s feature films, it seems fair to divide his work into two categories: that of timeless observations on relationships (Still Walking, Nobody Knows), penetrating, and all-relevant, and his far more numerous, yet minor tales that flesh out those greater films’ peripheries (I Wish, Air Doll, Maborosi). The first, while absolutely awash in contemporary Japanese life, transcend such limits by adapting characters to situations that can appear anywhere, while the latter are observations of a far smaller nature, even if quite uniform, and well done. 2013’s Like Father, Like Son is, no doubt, one of these small works, but while its faults might keep it out of better company, they are, ironically, the very elements that keep the film afloat, and even help build up to a few excellent scenes when they are most needed.
The narrative follows a young, seemingly happy couple that, soon after the film’s open, are informed their six year-old child, Keita (Keita Ninomiya), is not theirs, having been switched with that of another married couple in a hospital mix-up. Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama), Keita’s life-long dad — as opposed to biological father — is the prototypically wealthy but overworked Japanese, demanding but absent from his son’s life, while Keita’s mother, Midori (Machiko Ono), is the dutiful but neglected spouse. The three interact quite well, it seems, but after a while, their jabs are only too visible, even as no one else seems to notice. Meanwhile, the couple’s ‘real’ son, Ryusei (Shogen Hwang), is being taken care of by Yukari (Yoko Maki) and Yudai (Riri Furanki), a lower-class couple who, by contrast, seem to hate and nag each other to no end. After much internal conflict, they all finally agree to exchange kids, cut off contact, and hope for the best. The original bonds are just too strong, however, and the families drift back to one another, even as it’s revealed that Yudai — crude, lazy, and overly concerned with the hospital’s reimbursement — is the far better father, and Ryota, seeing his own deficiencies in Yudai’s goodness, decides to ‘do better’, and be the sort of father he’s never had.
If the film sounds predictable, that’s because it is, not only in its narrative arcs, but also in that each and every character is a stereotype — or rather, that they seem to be. Nor does it help that the hospital reveals its mistake at the ten minute mark of this two hour film, thus ensuring certain conflicts must play out, if not the film’s various resolutions, in a back-and-forth manner expected of such a difficult situation. For all that, however, the film is saved by how these arcs dip and go, and not merely where they lead the viewer, because while so many scenes are barefaced cliches, as far as the content goes, they are still uniquely presented, and with enough detail and good acting to make them specific to the characters, within. For example, when Ryota and Midori are being told of their son’s biological status, the camera shows them climbing a long set of winding stairs — a well-executed, almost tangential glimpse into the family’s psyche that the later, more traditional shots of their faces could never convey. (The acting’s good, but not good.) Other scenes are likewise saved, such as when Ryota, who once ran away from home as a kid, visits his father to ask for advice: Should he keep Keita, or allow his biological son, Ryusei, into his life instead? Of course, his father, predictably, is an ass, and too much the cold, conservative patriarch he’s made out to be by others, but nonetheless says: “Listen, it’s in the blood. For humans and horses, it’s all about blood lines. Their boy is going to look more and more like you. And Keita, will increasingly resemble the boy’s father.” Sure, it’s an ignorant comment, and one that betrays a lack of any real understanding of human relationships, but it’s also poetic, well-delivered, and implies something deeper, within, that Ryota’s complaints about his father have not let us see. It is also a key scene for one observes the entire family laughing, joking, and expressing genuine affection, except for Ryota, who’s glum and stoic even in the midst of accusing others of the same. It is, interestingly, the only time we ever meet Ryota’s brother, who is never mentioned before or after this meeting, despite appearing warm and likeable, implying Ryota’s lack of concern here. Now, perhaps it is true that Ryota’s father was terrible to him, and this rubbed off on Ryota, but it is also clear that, at least on some level, the old man has changed, and resembles Ryota not at all, which not only reveals the lack of wisdom behind his comments re: the importance of blood-lines, but also that Ryota’s apparent coldness was a choice Ryota likely made, rather than being something that was engineered into him from without.
Nor are the other characters necessarily who they say they are, either. In one well-executed scene, for instance, when Ryota seems set on finalizing the exchange, Midori cuddles Keita, and offhandedly asks the child whether they should both just run away. It is not a very well-written exchange, on its own, but somewhat unexpected — at least in that context — and visually arresting, down to the sudden, knowing glances of Keita at his mother, whose words he implicitly rejects. The other couple, for their part, slowly go from ‘hating’ each other, to revealing their behavior for what it is: minor, nagging comments about something immediate on their minds, rather than the calculated digs that, while far more ‘quiet’ than Yukari’s and Yudai’s brusqueness, are passive-aggressive, and therefore more symptomatic, more hateful. It is a solid inversion, but one that, over time, plays off the film in rather obvious ways, for the ‘bad’ family — poor, unmindful of their kids’ diets — is actually the ‘good’ one, whereas such symbolism could have been better used for developing greater subtleties of character rather than the film’s thin ideas on family and love, which are a lot less complicated than the film’s conflict implies. Yes, Ryota makes such questions hard, but only because of his own flaws; there is little inherently ‘deep’ in what the characters think or say.
But while most of these characters are, in fact, a little different from their public spectacle — a feature of good scripting — it seems that Ryota, at times, is even further from what the film says he is, to a fault. Yes, it’s obvious that he works too much, that he can be neglectful, and that he has some issues with personal closeness, but he’s also seen exchanging very affectionate looks with Keita, playing videogames with him, blowing out candles, playing at parks, and, at the film’s open, is said to have went camping and flying kites that summer. These are all examples of bonding that, given all the evidence on the ‘con’ side, only serve to deepen Ryota’s character. Yet the film goes at lengths to deny this, showing only a few examples of Ryota’s failings, thus creating a disconnect between what the characters feel and observe and what the viewer does. Such a gulf is difficult to explain, either logically or artistically, and comes off more as a flaw of scripting rather than a careful decision by Koreeda to expand Ryota’s limits. This means that, while Ryota is, for the most part, a well-sketched stereotype, he is also a stereotype whose essence must be taken on faith, rather than through some consistent evidence of wrongdoing.
Nor are the film’s ideas re: illusion, reality, or what makes family ‘family’ necessarily deep, but merely well-executed. There are wonderful moments of bonding, such as Yudai spitting out water at Keita while they bathe, and the like, or the film’s more ‘philosophical’ posits, such as Yudai taking offense at Ryoto’s crude assumptions about his parenting, or Ryoto’s epiphany when the nurse who switched his child for another is defended by her adolescent son, but little of this truly sticks, such as how the family’s bitterness and obsessions in Still Walking reverberates well past the film’s close. Yes, one can look underneath, here, and glimpse Koreeda’s machinations, down to the more complex elements — a child’s well-timed glance, or a scripting decision that requires multiple viewings to really appreciate — lesser artists would never even think of, but so much of what transpires is on the surface that it doesn’t always pay to look.
At film’s end, when Keita agrees to reunite with his ‘old’ father, precisely as the viewer wants, the decision is never dwelled upon nor explained. In fact, the film ends with the two families in one space, nodding at each other, but clearly needing to come to a decision. The film’s slick ‘lie’ is that it’s unclear as to what will happen — slick because, while technically true, it is also obvious that things must change, and they will involve Ryota first and foremost, who must now prove himself not only to his wife and son, but also to his new friends, who at first respect him for his status, only to later realize his want of character. It is a very good approach, for in many such cases, it’s not so much the impending decision that would frighten, but how, exactly, one will live with it on a day-by-day basis. Not giving these details forces the viewer to confront this reality more deeply, even as most artists labor (and fail) under the opposite view, inundating their audiences with things they do not need, nor would have ever asked for.
That said, Like Father, Like Son takes a potentially disastrous approach towards a melodramatic topic, yet succeeds in most ways by stripping down clichés to mere narrative devices, then letting in a good deal of realism. Sure, Hirokazu Koreeda has better films, but this is probably the one most easy to learn from, for in the midst of its decisions and indecisions, one not only sees the bubbles of something greater, but also why there’s not much steam.
[This review originally appeared on Cosmoetica, 7/30/2014.]