Film Review: Like Father, Like Son

Like Father, Like Son (2013)
Written and Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring Masaharu Fukuyama, Keita Ninomiya, Machiko Ono, and Rirî Furankî

The story of children swapped at birth is a favorite staple of soap operas and made for TV movies given the huge opportunity for over-the-top melodrama.

Like Father, Like Son (original title Soshite Chichi Ni Naru) could not be more different.

The film revolves around businessman Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) as he learns that his son – whom he was in the process of grooming for an elite private school and hopefully a future career – is not actually his biological child.

Although we also see things from his wife’s perspective, the film is certainly biased towards Ryota and his reaction to the revelation.

Ryota is a no-nonsense, respectable figure. A successful businessman. He provides for his family, and he expects his dinner to be on the table when he gets him in the evening.

It is the job of his wife, Midori (Machiko Ono), to take care of their son, Keita (Keita Ninomiya).

Ryota sees his job as a father to direct Keita along the path that will give him the best chance at finding success in life. To make sure that he studies and does well at school. To make sure that he excels as respectable extra-curricular pursuits such as piano.

But to call Ryota a detached father would be unfair. He clearly loves Keita very much. He just doesn’t have the ability to show it. His love is restrained, making for an awkwardly unemotional and subtle relationship between the two of them.

And that’s even before he discovers that Keita is not his biological child.

It is true in cinema that actions speak louder than words. Film is a visual medium. It doesn’t matter so much what a character says as what they actually do. But as hands-off a parent as Ryota is, in his case it is more about what he tries to do that shows who he truly is.

After Ryota and Keita are informed that there was a mix-up in the maternity ward when Keita was born six years ago, they meet the couple who are actually Keita’s biological parents: a working class shop-owner, Yudai Saiki, and his wife, Yukari (Rirî Furankî and Yôko Maki respectively.) Subsequently, they also meet the boy who is actually their biological son, Ryusei (Shôgen Hwang.)

Ryota is not impressed with the economically disparate circumstances of the Saiki family, so he instinctively encourages his attorney to find some legal precedence which would allow him and to Midori to become the legal guardians of both children.

Meanwhile, he does not let Keita know what is going on.

Both families spend more time together, and the contrast between Ryota and Yudai as father becomes even starker. Whereas Ryota is very much hands-off and steady, Yudai is much more obvious in his love for his children – he frolics alongside them in the bounce house and makes it known and obvious (both to his kids and anyone who cares to notice) just how much he loves them and enjoys spending time with them.

On one visit to the Saiki household, Yudai fixes one of his kids’ broken toys with a soldering iron. When Keita later takes a damaged toy to Ryota and asks him to fix it, his father cannot, and instead suggests that they simply buy a new one. Disappointed, Keita decides that he will instead ask Ryota to fix it for him the next time they visit.

Could there be a clearer metaphor for the need for tangible love?

Ryota is restrained in his love for Keita, but not because he is a bad father. He is just not equipped to articulate his emotions. A corporate salaryman through and through, he cannot comprehend Ryota’s public cavorting in a mall play area. But as the situation regarding the fate of Keita and Ryusei gets increasingly dire, he recognizes it is a brick wall that he must somehow break through in order to save his family.

It is eventually concluded that the Nonomiyas will not be able to parent both boys. When Midori, Yudai Saiki, and Yukari learn what Ryota had been plotting, they are all appalled at him.

Any power Ryota once had is now gone. Fate moves closer to the inevitable: Keita will go to live with his biological parents. Ryusei will come to live with Ryota and Midori.

Through all of this, Midori is an emotional wreck over the loss of Keita, though she does an exceptional job of hiding it from Ryota.

At times, it seems Ryota is primarily concerned with the fact that all the time and effort he invested in Keita was for naught. He sees nothing of himself in Ryusei. He may be the boy’s biological father, but there is no connection they share, no common ground. Any rule Ryota attempts to lay down for his new son is either disregarded or the protested by his new son.

But it is not just because Keita was the model son who was obedient and constantly trying to please his father that Ryota finds himself in a psychological quandary – he loves Keita. Worse, he realizes that he never truly expressed to Keita just how much he loved him.

Out of options and with the decisions with the greatest implications for his family out of his hands, Ryota takes Midori and Ryusei to visit the Saikis. But Keita wants nothing to do with him. The poor boy cannot be blamed for feeling abandoned by the father he loved so much.

Like Father, Like Son is a devastatingly emotional film. Consistently understated and as restrained as Ryota’s emotions, it nevertheless cuts right to the heart.

This is an intimate study of a father who must learn to open up and connect more deeply with his son (biological or not) regardless of any obstacle, legal problem, or social convention that might stand in his way. This is the story of Ryota’s development from a mere guardian or provider, to a true daddy.

Though quiet and carefully constructed, there is rich subtext flowing beneath the surface throughout this film. It is quite wonderful, and utterly meaningful. It will linger in your thoughts for long, long after it is over.

The performances are fantastic, with particular credit to Masaharu Fukuyama and Keita Ninomiya as the central father-son duo.

The direction by Hirokazu Koreeda, the cinematography, the score… Everything adds to and compounds the emotional wallop this film packs. It is both exquisite and exemplary. A true masterpiece on a miniature scale. Every father should watch this film, then go hug their children as tight as they can, and tell them that they love them.

I loved this film.

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