There’s a Lifetime movie lurking not far beneath the deceptively placid surface of this cutting family drama about a Japanese couple who discover that their six-year-old son is actually somebody else’s. The hospital informs them that their son was mistakenly switched just after being born with another boy from a different couple. Now, not only do they have to come to terms with the realization that their son is not related to them, but that their biological child is still out there, waiting to be met. What is their real son like, and if they haven’t raised him, what makes that boy their real son and not the one they’ve been creating a family with? Over the course of its smartly plotted two hours, writer/director Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s emotionally knotty film raises question after question about this interruption of what seemed initially like domestic bliss. The biggest of them being: Does any of this even matter?
For Ryota (Fukuyama Masaharu), nature is everything. His father raised him to believe that “blood” is what matters. A workaholic who practically lives at the airy architecture firm where even the boss tries to tell him to take the occasional day off, Ryota only understands work, fate, and success. His wife Midori (Ono Machiko) spends the day in their chilly high-rise cube of an apartment cleaning, taking care of their son Keita (Ninomiya Keita), so that he too can succeed. Everything about them reads high-achieving yuppies who could stand to take their feet off the gas pedal but are decidedly devoted parents. A cheaper filmmaker would have viewed Ryota’s pushiness as sinister, making his insistence on Keita keeping up with piano lessons a sign of his incapability to love. But there’s a warmth to Ryota’s eyes when he watches Keita that doesn’t jibe with his harsh taskmaster exterior.
Whatever fragile bond Ryota has with Keita, though, is ripped apart by discovering that they aren’t in fact related. When the hospital puts them together with the couple who they had switched babies with, Ryota’s world is further shaken. Yukari (Mako Yoko) and Yudai (Lily Francky) are a working-class couple with three children who live behind the ramshackle store that Yudai runs more as hobby than money-making enterprise. What Yudai loves more than anything else is being a father. While Ryota makes disparaging comments and stands stiffly apart, Yukari throws himself into play with the children — an effervescently cute gang cast with Kore-Eda’s gimlet eye for magnetic personalities. The class differences in these mannered scenes are carefully observed (uptight yuppie versus let-it-all-hang-out working-class) but not overdone in the way that it’s almost sure to be done in the inevitable remake.
The unknowingly imperious Ryota assumes that the families must switch the children back, and even offers to raise both Keita and his biological son Ryusei (Hwang Shogen). It never occurs to him what a terrible idea this is (to him, his money means a better life for the boys and that’s it), being in a class where he clearly isn’t often challenged. While the nature vs. nurture debate seems to Ryota easily settled on the nature side, the film and nearly every other character comes down unmistakably on the nurture end. That difference makes for a slow-burn fuse. As the story builds towards the moment when the families will finally make the change — switching Ryusei and Keita from one home to the other — it begins to feel like a hushed catastrophe.
Korea-Eda combines his usual Oshima-like, microscopic eye for the fault-lines and power structures of family (see Still Walking) with a looser appreciation of how multiple families interact as groups and individuals. It’s a precisely measured thing, and makes for a quiet movie, but one built on primal fears and loves that start ripping through the façade in the latter stretches of the film when Kore-Eda systematically overturns every one of Ryota’s assumptions. For all the time he spends thinking about his son and family, it’s as though Ryota can’t even see Keita. Like Father, Like Son is not about what makes a child truly one’s child (biology, love, or simply habit) but what makes a parent. The film has an answer, and it’s a beautiful, not entirely expected one.