REVIEW: そして父になる [Like Father, Like Son] [2013]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: NR | Runtime: 121 minutes | Release Date: September 28th, 2013 (Japan)
Studio: GAGA / Sundance Selects
Director(s): Hirokazu Koreeda
Writer(s): Hirokazu Koreeda

“Now it all makes sense”

After recently reading that Hirokazu Koreeda’s そして父になる [Like Father, Like Son] had been optioned by Dreamworks for an English language reboot, I can’t help but imagine how ineffective it will be in comparison to the Japanese original. A lot of what works in this tale of a father struggling to figure out whether time or blood makes a child yours goes hand-in-hand with the nation’s culture. I don’t see an American possessing the conservative mindset necessary to think six years with a child is meaningless after discovering his real son was switched at birth. Even if a Westerner was a workaholic and constantly away from home like Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama), he’d still have an unbreakable connection with the boy whether they looked anything alike or not.

That’s a gross generalization as some sect of American parents do feel DNA is what matters, but something about my fascination with Japanese culture and its propensity to hold hard work and to some extent social class as paramount in life makes the dilemma Koreeda presents much more interesting there. Ryota’s dream is for his son Keita (Keita Ninomiya) to grow into a success like him. He came from a tough childhood with a gambling father and a stepmother he unjustly never warmed to, so he did everything necessary to escape and start what he believed to be a ‘real’ family. He works long hours and weekends, but that can’t be avoided and his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) understands. Unfortunately, however, underneath his obvious love is also disappointment the boy turned out more like his mother than he.

We hear it when he’s explaining the boy’s strengths and weaknesses to the primary school board he’s prepared Keita to charm as a first step towards a top-notch education. Midori is more forgiving and thus the “spoiler” to his “disciplinarian”, but it’s a tough dynamic to uphold when he’s not the one there. Keita therefore has grown inside a world where disappointment rules—he sticks with piano half-heartedly, lies about going camping with his Dad to the board despite never having done so, and does everything to ensure the man coming home late at night is proud of him. It’s such a clinical example of familial life and shown so matter-of-factly with smiling parents to boot that you begin to wonder if this is simply how it is. And right when you do, Koreeda drops the bombshell.

In come the Saikis (Rirî Furankî’s Yudai and Yôko Maki’s Yukari). Parents to Ryusei (Shôgen Hwang)—the Nonomiya’s biological boy as Keita is theirs—and two younger children, they’re simple folk who live above the shop Yudai runs in the city. Theirs is a house of fun, frivolity, and love wherein bath time is a group affair. It’s a stark contrast to the Nonomiya home—not better or worse, just different. Where the Saikis find the tragedy of being told their son isn’t technically their son difficult, they’d happily continue life with the boy they’ve raised. To them any lawsuit is about monetary dispensation where Ryota needs to know why it happened. Without hard evidence to a reason he’ll end up blaming his wife for not noticing while the truth reveals why Keita is such an “underachiever”.

What follows is a rather taut drama spanning almost a year in these two families’ lives. We watch as they meet, get to know their “real” sons, and decide what to do. Should they swap for good and never have contact with the child they’ve loved for six years? Should they pretend nothing happened and try to go back to the way things were? It’s a horrendous situation to be thrust into especially when you’re given a look through the window at another life. There are the financially stable Nonomiyas whose patriarch is presumptuous enough to suggest taking both boys as though they’re property and the close-knit love of the Saikis who quite honestly have provided the better environment of the two. Where do you draw the line between emotional attachment and physical? Can you?

It’s a film full of mirroring and comparison as Ryota and we crunch the numbers. Where we try to solve for a situation best suited to the boys, however, his distraught father is more intent on achieving a result his shortsighted, hypothetical idea of family needs to survive. We meet the elder Nonomiyas as well as Ryota’s brother to witness how similar—yet untragic—his youth was. We meet Midori’s country mother who says blood doesn’t matter in contradiction to Mr. Nonomiya’s matter-of-fact exclamation that it does. Everyone straight down to Ryota’s boss has an opinion and we weigh them all as Yudao and Yukari calmly assume everyone is on the same page. They don’t see Ryota’s agenda to steal the boy he “deserves” and he doesn’t understand that that potential son no longer exists, blood or not.

You can’t help but get drawn into the drama, pain, and hope in every interaction. I’ll admit the two-hour runtime seems to crawl throughout, yet I didn’t once feel bored or disinterested as new details cropped up and more revelations about Ryota’s past inferred upon his future. The performances are fantastic across the board whether Maki and Furankî’s parents of the year, Fukuyama and Ono’s twenty-first century love bred from compartmentalized isolation, or Hwang and Ninomiya’s innocent confusion and inability to comprehend parents who were and aren’t anymore. There’s real evolution between whom we’re introduced to and where they go, each facing something we hope will never come our way. It’s a long road with a lot of introspection answering the nature/nurture question open-endedly in a way with which I can wholeheartedly agree.


photography:
[1] Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota Nonomiya (Father) and Keita Nonomiya as Keita Ninomiya (Son) in Hirozaku Kore-Eda’s LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON. © 2013 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK, INC./AMUSE INC./GAGA CORPORATION. All rights reserved. A Sundance Selects Release.
[2] Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota Nonomiya (Father) and Keita Nonomiya as Keita Ninomiya (Son) in Hirozaku Kore-Eda’s LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON. © 2013 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK, INC./AMUSE INC./GAGA CORPORATION. All rights reserved. A Sundance Selects Release.
[3] Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota Nonomiya (Man) and Machiko Ono as Midori Nonomiya (Woman) in Hirozaku Kore-Eda’s LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON. © 2013 FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK, INC./AMUSE INC./GAGA CORPORATION. All rights reserved. A Sundance Selects Release.

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