“She that herself will sliver and disbranch from her material sap perforce must wither and come to deadly use.”—King Lear
Bloodlines have been important since the dawn of man, as have all the troubles inherent in structuring much of our societies around them. Traditionally, this was a purely patriarchal concern related to heirs, to the continuation of a family’s reign or legacy, although with the rise of secular humanism and feminism in the 20th century, it has morphed into something more abstract — still somewhat ingrained in our DNA yet intellectually, and often socially, now an arcane instinct. Even with adoption and non-traditional families on an unprecedented rise, both numerically and in terms of their social acceptance, notions of the innate supplementary value of biological relations still linger in the subconscious and remain a crucial element of most parent-child relationships.
In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s masterful new film, Like Father, Like Son, modern perceptions of the value of blood versus time spent together and nature versus nurture are examined through the director’s typically subtle and humanistic lens. As with his wonderful 2004 film Nobody Knows, Like Father, Like Son uses a simple tragic family drama setup — in this case, two families learn after six years that their sons were switched at birth — to explore modern conceptions of familial responsibility and parental roles as well as the ways these issues effect children. And as with Kore-eda’s earlier film, it never veers towards over-sentimentality or melodrama, always opting for a gaze which seeks to examine all angles and perspectives in kaleidoscopic focus rather than leaning towards any platitudinous certitudes.
The film wastes no time with exposition, almost immediately introducing the dilemma. First, through the Nonomiya family: Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama), the hardworking businessman who remarks, “Now it all makes sense,” upon learning his sweet yet undedicated son, Keita (Keita Ninomiya), is not his own, and Midori, who continues to believe her son is like her even knowing she didn’t give birth to him. Later, through the Seiki family, with the lazy but loving Yudai (Riri Furanki) and the caring yet passive-aggressive Yukari (Yoko Maki), who struggle with the balance of dealing with these newfound circumstances and worrying about how much money they can grease the hospital for in their lawsuit. While on paper, the plot and characters sound rather schematic, the beauty of the film is when it is motion and these initially stagnant but built-in character perspectives clash with each other as the idea of swapping a child who has been raised as their own for six years with their “true” child they’ve just now met becomes an increasing and encroaching likelihood.
The conflict between the two fathers, Ryota and Yudai, lies at the center of the film — the former is overworked and provides for his family but rarely makes time for them, while the latter is often greedy and lazy, yet remarkably close to his children — bringing in issues of class, pride, fiscal responsibility, gender roles, and unconditional love. While this opens the film to charges of a male-centric point of view (it’s right there in the title, after all), Kore-eda counters the fathers with complex women who struggle with their own maternal instincts and the connections they’ve developed with their non-biological children as well as children who, unable to understand the changes they’re encountering, act out against the newfound circumstances they are unfairly thrust into. Through these two fleshed out triptych families, Kore-eda portrays an array of responses to this impossible situation — from Ryota’s calm, collected yet distant approach and Yudai’s caring hypersensitivity to the children’s more subtly revealed reactions through outbursts and sly passive aggression — without siding with or judging any of them.
Deftly mining the conflict for both its raw emotion and philosophical conundrums, Like Father, Like Son explores the meaning of parenthood in a most unique way, taking a deeply thoughtful approach to a hypothetical and following its unknown paths in an organic manner. The delicacy with which Kore-eda displays the swirling emotions and internal struggles of each character is remarkable as is the way he effortlessly imbues the film’s breezy naturalism with cinematic virility. While his formalist tendencies aren’t nearly as rigid as Yasujiro Ozu, the classic Japanese master he most closely resembles, through his meticulous framing and efficient editing, objects and spaces accrue, and sometimes even transform, meaning and gain power throughout the film. The Nonomiya’s piano; the paper rose Keita gives to his father; Keita’s robot toy; Ryota’s camera that Keita rejects as a gift; and the Nonomiya’s spacious, modern apartment versus the cluttered chaos of the Seiki clan’s home — all these reemerge throughout the film, forming a visual fabric that ties the story to a palpable and realistic world while enhancing and enriching the drama itself. Despite the subject matter inviting judgments and preconceived conclusions, Kore-eda never drives points home so much as he offers infinite counterpoints, stressing the complexity of the situation through both the adults’ and children’s eyes. This rich familial drama is steeped in Japanese tradition, yet its themes and the emotional terrain it covers are timeless and universal, transcending its story’s shallow trappings through its multifaceted characters and intricate representations of familial bonds and the everyday actions and occurrences that bond them together.