LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (Soshite Chichi Ni Naru) B+
This is a film that reaches across international barriers, becoming as much a brilliant family drama in the understated style of Japanese filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu, yet may also be seen reflected in the gentle lyricism of an early Spielberg movie, an American director that headed the Cannes Jury that awarded this film a Jury Prize as the 3rd best film in competition. Like Ozu, Kore-eda returns again and again to examine the minutia of Japanese family life, focusing on issues of abandonment and separation, along with themes of divorce and death that are prevalent in many of his films. This film also examines issues of class, morality, and the clash between capitalism and traditional values, where one questions the increasingly competitive nature of entrance standards for quality primary schools. Early in this film we see a family and their child interviewed for one of the more elite schools, where we quickly learn the child was prepped for the occasion, and even fictionalized some of his answers to create a better impression. Nonetheless, this gives us a window of insight into this family, when a successful Tokyo architect Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama, also a singer/songwriter) and his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) are asked which parent their 6-year old son Keita (Keita Ninomiya) actually favors, with Ryota suggesting he has the kind and gentle disposition of his mother. Following the family at home in their modern but sterile apartment, without anything out of place, we see the aggressive determination Ryota displays at work, always staying late and working on weekends, meticulously planning his family’s activities, including rigid demands for Keita to help prepare him for a highly successful future. Ryota expresses traditional Japanese ideals, which include hard work, discipline, and fierce competitiveness, where he’s somewhat perplexed and disappointed that his son lacks the aggressive drive he hoped for, where instead he’s shy, introverted, and compassionate, lacking the cutthroat instincts of his father who is overworked and mostly absent from home, maintaining an emotional distance to his son.
Kore-eda originally intended to become a novelist, which may explain why his films have such an unusual depth and curiously explorative quality about them, where in many ways the completely unsentimentalized style feels like documentary exposé’s, especially NOBODY KNOWS (2004), a story of parental abandonment based on a real life incident, the Sugamo child abandonment case, when a mother irresponsibly deserted her four children who were smuggled into a Tokyo apartment and then left alone for nine months to survive on their own. The searing humanity on display results from such tragic, near inexplicable misfortune. Similarly, Ryota’s plans are shattered by a single phone call from a hospital reporting there was a mix-up at the hospital when Keita was born, that another family is raising their biological son who was accidentally switched at birth, detected by a standard blood test needed for primary school. The hospital brings the two families together, where Yudai (Lily Franky) and Yukari (Yōko Maki), who run a small appliance shop in a rundown working class neighborhood, living in the cramped quarters above the shop, have been raising their biological son Ryusei (Shôgen Hwang), and have actually had two more children since then. While the hospital lawyers suggest the parents usually switch back to their biological parents in almost all instances, they initially recommend visits, followed by sleepovers, weekends, and then longer visits, all in an attempt to make the adjustment as painless and as natural as possible. Meanwhile, Ryota enlists the aid of a fellow classmate who is a high priced lawyer, and the two families sue the hospital, while Yudai amusingly splurges on food every chance he gets during the meetings, sending the hospital the bill. But Ryota has other intentions as well, believing Ryusei’s poor standard of living is so compromised that both children would be better served living in their wealth and extravagance. Certainly initially, Yudai doesn’t represent the traditional standard for success, as he tends to be lazy and easily distracted, always preferring to put things off for another day, where he doesn’t exhibit even a hint of the dedication and discipline shown by Ryota. But he spends all his available time playing with the kids, where his family doesn’t have all the rules for children to follow, where they’re not overly obedient or overworked from all the pressures their parents put them under, as instead they freely run around and actually enjoy childhood.
The real key here is Ryota’s arrogance, as he looks down on everyone who doesn’t have his economic advantages, including his own family, where making sacrifices means working harder and longer hours, which in his view is taking care of his family. Of course it leaves Midori as the sole nurturer and provider for Keita, and she’s perfectly comfortable if he’s a quiet and sensitive child without an ambitious streak. He’s an adorable child, and as is the case in most Kore-eda films with children, they are notorious scene stealers just by acting naturally. While the film tends to focus on the two fathers, both openly suspicious of one another, whose manner couldn’t be more opposite, the two mothers actually get along and share helpful information about their kids, as they still feel attached to the kids they’ve raised since birth, and are concerned about this huge undertaking they’re going through. Both families are hugely supportive of the new arrivals, and it feels only a matter of time before an exchange is made. Midori, on the other hand, is fiercely against the idea, as Keita is her son, where there is nothing remotely as close as a mother’s bond with her child, especially one she feels takes after her, and she’s afraid of losing him. Ryota on the other hand is going by the book, doing what is expected, providing leadership for this new adjustment, addressing the situation much as he would a work project. In one of the more extraordinary moments, Midori is on the train with Keita, where she’s so fed up with her husband’s stubborn resistance that she actually considers running away with him, returning back home with her family where they could stay together. But Keita is not the kind of kid that rocks the boat, and he quickly realizes that running away is not what all these new family visits are all about. Instead he’s developing an appreciation for just being a kid, where now he doesn’t have to pick up after himself every second of the day, as he’s allowed to make a mess, or play with other kids and just have fun. In traditional Japanese style, Yudai has communal baths with his children, who also sleep communally, and he has unique repair skills to fix broken down toys, where he gets them up and working again, like valued members of the family, while Ryota would simply buy another one.
Typical of Kore-eda, the film is an accumulation of small moments, divided into chapters by seasons, covering a full year, beautifully captured by Mikaya Takimoto’s artful camerawork and the use of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Bach - Goldberg Variations: Aria (Glenn Gould) - YouTube (2:54), evoking a range of moods from profoundly contemplative to frenetically energetic. The children prove to be an interesting study in contrasts, where Ryusei is a bundle of energy and cheerful enthusiasm, almost always smiling, where he’s not at all used to being quiet or following rules, and refuses to call his new parents mom and dad, while the overly shy Keita slowly blends into the hustle and bustle of a larger family unit, where Yukari is the driving force out of necessity, as otherwise nothing would ever get done. Midori, on the other hand, assumes the traditional submissive posture in a patriarchal society, where in a rare visit to his father and stepmother, we learn Ryota’s father also maintained an emotional distance while assuming the role of a domineering authority figure, literally continuing a cycle of parental abuse through neglect. Kore-eda is an exceedingly patient filmmaker that takes his time showing how different people construct their own lives, where he’s extremely patient with children and has developed especially subtle observational skills, where the audience becomes extremely familiar with each of the characters, their unique habits, and the changing perspectives they must adapt to. Kore-eda creates such richly compelling scenes, where the film’s complexity is largely due to the depth of character that he explores. The emotional rigidity of Ryota is slowly exposed, where the orderly discipline he imposes on his family is a self-constructed veneer protecting his own underlying vulnerability. Yudai, for instance, spends more time with Keita in just a few months than Ryota will all year, suggesting fatherhood, from a child’s view, is all about spending time together. This certainly raises questions about the professional elite who work hard in their profession to reach the top, where it’s always a balancing act finding family time. The final scenes together of Ryota and Keita are truly moving, and really not like anything else in modern cinema due to this uniquely gifted director’s ability to gain such rare insight into a child’s character.