Like Father, Like Son (Soshite Chichi ni Naru)
Review by David Cirone
An early scene in Like Father, Like Son introduces the Ninomiya family at their son’s entrance exam for elementary school. Mother Midori (Machiko Ono) would be just fine with her son Kieta attending a public school, but father Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) won’t settle for anything less than the best school for his son. Parents and teachers alike watch the children play together, wonderfully oblivious to the numbers pinned to their chests as their personalities are scored in the distance.
As much as he professes to love his only son, Ryota is keeping score, too, making sure his child measures up to his standards. Daily piano lessons are a must, and young Keita takes baths alone to build up his independence. Ryota’s grooming his son to take on the strict habits of his own life that he believes have brought him success as an engineer, and a prestigious elementary school is the logical and proper next step. A call from the hospital where Keita was born derails Ryota’s plans for perfection, and new blood tests reveal that Keita is not his real son.
Will Ryota and his wife exchange Keita for an unknown child that shares their blood? The questions looms heavy over the film, but writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda (Nobody Knows) balances this horrific situation with a sustained, light touch and a perfectly balanced performances. The simple piano score and modest camera work take away any imposed dramatics and let us observe the six human beings whose futures must be decided. There’s no rule book for this kind of thing, and each character has a different idea of what’s right.
The easy way out would be to make the second set of parents (played by Lily Franky and Yoko Maki) unfit to raise Ryusei, Ryota and Midori’s natural child. Ryota even starts out with this disposition, and makes a plan to adopt both children. He’s made up his mind that he’s the best father for both kids, and Koreeda sets us up to be just as judgmental of the Ryusei’s guardians. Sloppy, late, bickering, and poor, they’re the immediately visible opposite to Ryota’s polished, metropolitan household.
While the parents’ struggles take up the majority of our focus, the children get to express themselves, too. In an American film, we might see some charming, over-mature dialogue to bring unexpected emotional clarity to the situation, but Koreeda rightly lets the kids just be kids. The boys want to play and be loved, and the actions of the parents scare them to death. A scene where the children are temporarily swapped is heartbreaking in its depiction of a child’s paralyzing, silent fear.
Ultimately, the film pivots on the question of Ryota’s decisions, and Fukuyama brings a confident restraint to his portrayal of a man torn between his own expectations, those of his wife and family, and the mixed suggestions of those around him who all seem to know what’s best for him and the children. I wish that Ryota had the chance to be right a little more often, and his character takes on the role of punching bag a bit to often as the other characters weigh in on the importance of conscience and feelings. The final scenes where Ryota reconciles his decision and the children’s fate are beautifully awkward and incomplete. In those last moments, Fukuyama’s character and the film itself surpass black-and-white textbook definitions and resign to be human.