Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
In this modern take on the age-old theme of nature versus nurture, yuppie couple Ryota and Midori get the shock of their lives when they discover that their son, six-year-old Keita, whom they’ve been painstakingly grooming to be a high-achiever like his dad, isn’t actually their son after all, thanks a mix-up at the hospital where he was born. As baby-switches go, it might not be quite as bad as the one in The Omen, but the consequences are still pretty devastating.
It’s a dilemma which, in less subtle hands, would make for meaty melodrama and tearful histrionics. Like Father, Like Son, by contrast, unfolds through gentle character studies and dry comedy of manners, but it exerts no less of a powerful hold for that.
The potential corrosiveness of the revelation on their privileged little family unit is immediately apparent. For driven, workaholic Ryota, the vague dissatisfaction he has had with his son all these years suddenly makes sense, while Midori is appalled at her own lack of insight as a mother – how could she not tell that the child was not her own?
And then there’s the awkward meeting with the other victims of the mix-up, a scruffy, cash-strapped small town husband and wife who have been unwittingly raising Ryota and Midori’s son in the back of a seedy hardware shop. Complications ensue as they attempt to work out how best to handle the situation. Should they swap back? What’s more important – blood, or the connection they’ve developed with Keita? Or maybe, Ryota wonders, he and Midori should raise both boys? Yudai, the other dad, is eagerly anticipating a big payout in damages from the hospital, and Ryota looks down his nose at him, certain he’s the better role model. But as the two families start seeing more of each other, Ryota is disconcerted to find everyone getting on well with Yudai, who may not have made much of his life but certainly has a magic touch with kids.
Hirokazu Kore-eda teases out these various wrinkles with sensitivity and warmth, and – no Kramer Vs Kramer moments here – with a complete absence of sentimentality or mawkishness. There are beautifully natural performances all round, even from the (extremely cute and unannoying) littluns, and Machito Ono exudes understated pathos as the quiet, timid wife who realizes, perhaps too late, that she feels a profound kinship with this little boy who has come by mistake into her life.
If you wanted to pick holes, you could argue that the movie relies upon a consoling and untrue stereotype – namely, that the rich lead boring, anal-repressive lives and the poor might have holes in their shoes but they know how to have fun. But aside from this sneaky balancing of the scales, Like Father, Like Son is an impressively thoughtful, even-handed and well-crafted piece of cinema and one well worth making a permanent home for on your Blu-ray shelf.