Another masterfully played out drama from I Wish (Kiseki), After Life, Nobody Knows director Kore-eda Hirokazu…
‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do,’ Philip Larkin tells us in his infamous poem This Be the Verse. ‘They fill you with the faults they had, and add some extra, just for you.’ But what if they weren’t your mum and dad…?
In Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Cannes Jury Prize winning drama we are presented with just that dilemma, as two couples discover their six-year-old boys were swapped at birth. Workaholic, ambitious architect Ryota Nonomiya (Fukuyama Masaharu, Galileo, Ryomaden, Suspect X) and his wife Midori (Ono Machiko, The Floating Castle, Masakikuaraba, Eureka) are faced with an awful decision, to take back their biological son or keep Keita (Ninomiya Keita, The Boy Inside), the boy they have lovingly brought up.
Kore-eda deliberately puts us into Ryota’s shoes first, this archetypal figure of a respectable businessman; identifying with his disapproval of Yudai Saiki (Lily Franky, Suspect X, Love Strikes!/Moteki, Yellow Elephant), the father of his biological son Ryusei (Shogen Hwang). Yudai lives above his own appliance store with his wife Yukari (Maki Yoko, The Princess Blade, Kamikaze Girls, Infection, The Grudge) and his three children. Ryota has nothing but scorn for his opposite – a man who freely admits his philosophy to be ‘Why do today what you can put off till tomorrow’, subverting Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote.
But is Yudai really a less responsible parent that Ryota, putting his family first rather than working through weekends and evenings? Rather like Larkin’s poem, Ryota’s detached relationship with his father and stepmother has coloured his own relationship with his son.
Kore-eda’s narrative may hold few surprises, but it’s the quality of the writing and performances that truly bring the story to life. There’s a warmth and humour to the script, yet the characters feel authentic, real. He avoids hysterics to let the story play out naturally. Even the use of a solo piano performance through out most of the soundtrack seems deliberately stripped back, and all the more evocative for it.
Kore-eda displays a masterful touch exploring the idea of nature versus nurture, often subtle touches; such as Rysei’s habit of chewing straws just like the father who raised him. Just how important is it to share DNA? We need to believe in Ryota’s acceptance in the importance of bloodline above all else, what impact that might have on his aspirations for his child, and recognse that chip on his shoulder that stops him from seeing the truth.
There are some powerfully poignant and touching moments, all the more so because of how Kore-eda underplays them. One of the most striking scenes shows Ryota attempting to apologise to his stepmother for how he treated her growing up. From inside a car we see just his side of the conversation on the phone, with her cutting him off from actually saying anything, saving their shared awkwardness, yet both realise the sentiment that has been (un)articulated.
The cast are wonderful, with Fukuyama – best known in Japan for television roles on series, particularly in Ryomaden and as physicist turned detective Galileo (as well as a successful career as a singer-songwriter) – is sympathetic as Ryota, even when his opinions seem at there most outrageous. There’s no weak links here, with Franky and the respective wives Ono and Maki portrayed as fully rounded, engaging characters. Delightfully playing Ryota’s mother-in-law, Kirin Kiki (easily becoming a regular in Kore-eda’s films) once again has some of the films best quips.
And, of course, the children are fantastic: naturalistic but often hilarious, with Shogen Hwang exclaiming ‘Oh my god’ in English when playing his computer games. Well, what would you expect from Kore-eda after I Wish and Nobody Knows?
It’s intriguing to see Kore-eda target some of the most respected traits in Japanese society through Ryota’s character – the punctuality, ambition, and hard work – only to show us the imbalance in his family life that can lead to when taken to the extreme. As the repercussions of the global recession still dominate the workplace around the world, therein lies a warning for us all.
‘Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf.’ Above all Kore-eda’s message is that we don’t have to repeat the mistakes of our parents. Though this might not be Kore-eda’s best film (and it’s easily less daring than some of his previous work), like I Wish he displays a tenderness here that will resonate with audiences everywhere.
Like Father, Like Son premières at the 57th London Film Festival 2013, where it is in the Official Competition for best film, and is released in UK cinemas by Arrow Films on 18 October 2013.
Review originally posted 5 August 2013.