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Life Swap

Like Father, Like Son (2013)

Sundance Selects

Family lies at the center of much of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s work. It’s at once the most personal and familiar subject matter, but is one that is riddled with nuance and unbounded complexity. Nature versus nurture is a story as old as the hills, but rarely has it been told with such heartfelt craft as in Mr. Kore-eda’s latest picture, “Like Father, Like Son.”

Six-year-old Keita (Keita Ninomiya) is a seeming golden child, the progeny of hard-working authoritarian architect, Ryota (a stern Masaharu Fukuyama), and doting mum, Midorino (Machiko Ono). Ostensibly they’re the perfect family unit, yet Ryota’s unbridled ambition ensures his fatherly moments are fleeting, resulting in an evident disconnect between father and son.

When it transpires that Keita is not in fact their son owing to a devastating hospital mix-up, the young couple must face up to the heartbreaking decision of whether to switch the boy they have nurtured from birth for a child who is biologically theirs but remains a total stranger. It’s a situation that explains Ryota’s discomfiting relationship with Keita, but has far-reaching implications for all of their futures.

While Keita has wanted for nothing in life, Ryusei (Shogen Hwang) has been raised by a hard up but jovial shopkeeper, Yudai (Lily Franky), and wife, Yukari (Yoko Maki). Financially, the families are poles apart, a realization that brings out the worst in the arrogant and dismissive Ryota. As the prospect of exchanging the children becomes more apparent, the core tenet of “Like Father, Like Son” comes to the fore: namely, what constitutes a family and what makes a father?

Ryota is a man consumed by work and driven to succeed, traits he has forced upon Keita from a young age to the very detriment of their relationship. Meanwhile, Ryusei has been bought up in a carefree yet tight-knit household where he has flourished because he’s been allowed; nay positively encouraged to be a child. It is this conflict that lies at the heart of Mr. Kore-eda’s meditation on family. Is one way better than the other or are they just different?

Ryota is confronted with the fact that he’s less of a father than Yudai is, a hangover from his frosty relationship with his own father. For him, he’s faced with two choices, blood or bond? The absence of either in his relationship with Keita means he’s willing to cast him off for Ryusei, who at least shares one facet with him. For Yudai, the bond he share with Ryusei is stronger than any blood tie; there’s little question that for him all that matters is the love he shares with who he perceives to be his son.

Mr. Kore-eda’s immersive and involving direction ensures that this prince and the pauper familial portrait unravels in an increasingly poignant and absorbing manner. It’s at once a small, intimate and urgent study of the intricacies of the father-son dynamic, and yet it’s so utterly powerful that it always feels vital and consequential.

Ultimately Mr. Kore-eda’s didactic lesson is that it’s relatively easy to engineer or manipulate our environment and relationships; one can try and be a father to a son; but tellingly fatherhood isn’t a given, it’s something that you become, is hard earned and bestowed upon those who truly deserve the title, regardless of blood or bond.


Opens on Oct. 18 in Britain and on Jan. 16, 2014 in Manhattan.

Written, directed and edited by Hirokazu Kore-eda; director of photography, Mikiya Takimoto; production design by Keiko Mitsumatsu; produced by Kaoru Matsuzaki and Hijiri Taguchi; released by Arrow Films (Britain) and Sundance Selects (United States). In Japanese, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours. This film is rated PG by B.B.F.C. and not rated by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Masaharu Fukuyama (Ryota Nomiya), Machiko Ono (Midorino Nomiya), Yoko Maki (Yukari Saiki), Lily Franky (Yudai Saiki), Keita Ninomiya (Keita) and Shogen Hwang (Ryuesi).


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