Like Father, Like Son (2013) Review
Certificate: PG Running Time: 2hr 1 Min
Plot: Ryota Nonomiya is a successful businessman driven by money. When he learns that his biological son (Keita) was switched with another child after birth, he must make a life-changing decision and choose his biological son or the boy he raised as his own.
Six years spent raising your child, meticulously caring and shaping him into a reflection of goodness. He is your world and beacon of joy. So what if on one fateful day you are told that there has been a mistake. He is not yours and never was. Your child was swapped at birth with another due to some cruel twist of fate. It is this unenviable predicament faced by the affluent Nonomiya and lower class Saiki families in Hirokazu Koreeda’s emotionally captivating Japanese drama. It is an eloquent ode to the nature versus nature debate that handles its characters with a lightness of touch and its subject with masterful guile.
The 2013 Cannes Grand Prix winning tale is a gracefully balanced, introspective examination of the intimate yet contrasting bonds between parents and their offspring. Koreeda’s moving drama ebbs and flows with a poetic serenity; he rarely shys away from having to grapple universal questions on the role of a parent in the emotional development of a child. The performances of the children are extraordinary, a trait that is fast becoming synonymous with a Koreeda production. By carefully depicting conflicting approaches to parenthood by presenting them side by side, we are able to vividly compare and contrast how each has its pros and cons.
The key focus is on Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) who is the hard-nosed, successful businessman driven by money. He has dedicated his life to fulfilling his professional goals at the cost of partially neglecting his six-year-old son, Keita. There is a coldness and formality in their relationship that comes from the lack of engagement in his early years. This warmth is replaced with Ryota’s steely outlook on life as a means to achieve and become successful. He expects Keita to be a great piano player, to practice diligently in order to achieve greatness. When Keita fails to share his ambition, he is chastised and called weak. Where does this expectation come from?
The naturalistic flow of life always points to the past. Ryota was treated with harshness by his father growing up, it is all he knows. It is to Koreeda’s great credit that he explores this angle. Even though Ryota clearly was affected by a lack of warmth from his father and disagreed with his firm upbringing; he is simply unable to change his ways with his own son. It is the way he was nurtured and perhaps the reason he has been able to excel in the dog-eat-dog world of business. Is this a case of the son repeating the sins of his father? When Keita is discovered to have been swapped at birth, his mother (Midoro) is devastated but Ryota feels strangely vindicated. Should he simply swap the children over? It is this painful choice which is encouraged by the state but is so difficult to make. Midoro’s connection with Keita is immensely powerful, it is a fascinating juxtaposition to that of Ryota’s. A mother’s love is unconditional and she’ll always see the virtues in her child instead of the flaws.
In contrast to the Nonomiya’s, the Saiki family is shaped by the effervescent, playful nature of Yudai (the brilliant Rirî Furankî) who has poured his soul into ‘being there’ for his children. He is uneducated and runs his own convenience store that simply allows his young family to get by. There are virtually no excesses in their lives; the focus has been on building a loving family unit. Eldest son, Ryusei, is the biological son of the Nonomiya’s and is very warm and playful but has a stubborn edge (exactly like his father). As efforts are made from both sides to integrate one another’s miscast offspring, Yudai is open in his criticism of Ryota’s fatherly style. It is a battle of two schools of thought: the hot against cold, the tender against the tough. Do you persevere to make a better life for your child by working hard or sacrifice prosperity for a deeper emotional connection? In the cold light of day, money is never a substitute for love but it is certainly an enabler for a better life. Koreeda’s argument of striking a balance between the two is crucial but one which is so difficult to reach.
Whether the mantra: Like father, like son is ultimately true is up for debate. A son can plot his own path and walk in his own light but the power of nature is undeniable. It will sink its claws into your back just as you feel that you have eluded its grip forever. Koreeda’s follow up to I Wish (2011) is remarkable in every sense. It will ask more questions than it answers and will become a hallmark of Asian cinema. With a Hollywood remake on the horizon, catch this gem before it is spun for commercial gains.
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