How are bonds forged between parents and children? The old debate between nature vs. nurture rears its noncommittal head in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2013 Cannes Jury Prize-winning film, Like Father, Like Son. Blood ties are undoubtedly important – and more important in some cultures than in others. Yet, nurturance and time spent with the child cannot be discounted as influential factors. This Japanese film by that country’s preeminent surveyor of contemporary familial relationships explores humanity’s ambivalence regarding the matter. (In Kore-eda’s Maborosi, a wife deals with the aftereffects of her husband’s mysterious suicide; Nobody Knows shows us a 12-year-old forced to become the caretaker of his brood of younger siblings when their mother abandons them; Still Walking details the mixed emotions that all the characters struggle to keep in check when two grown children and their families come to visit their elderly parents on the 15th anniversary of the accidental death of their brother.)
The three films mentioned above are all truly great masterpieces, and though Like Father, Like Son is a very good movie, it is not in the same category. The story is a bit too schematic and impartial for that. The film ultimately perpetuates the ambiguity that permeates this human dilemma, while adding little to its illumination. What the film does provide, however, is an up-close view of two families struggling with this conflict – a no-win situation that’s indelibly inscribed.
Keita Ninomiya (Ninomiya) is the 6-year-old son of Ryota (Fukuyama) and Midorino (Ono). We first encounter this family in the midst of the child’s interview for acceptance into an elite school. Keita is the couple’s only child and they are obviously comfortable enough financially to afford such a school. Even though Ryota’s work schedule cuts into his family time, he remains a doting father during the time he does spend with his son. The family balance is upset by a phone call one day from the hospital where Keita was born. Apparently, there was a mix-up, and they are one of two couples who went home with the wrong baby. Yukari (Maki) and Yudai (Franky) Saiki are the couple who took home and raised the Ninomiyas’ baby, who is now also 6 and named Ryusei (Hwang). The Saikis are the parents of several small children, and their economic fortunes as the proprietors of a small electric supply and repair shop are more markedly modest than the Ninomiyas’. The painstaking process of figuring out how to rectify the situation – with hospital administrators also involved as an another vested interest – informs the rest of the movie.
Shock and bewilderment are paired with mutual recriminations and unsolicited opinions from the couples’ parents and in-laws. There is no good solution and no right solution, and turmoil gives birth to tensions between Ryota and Midorino. Conversely, the revelation of their offsprings’ true parentage also helps clarify buried questions that have nagged them from the get-go: Why does each child’s proclivities and appearance seem dissimilar to that of their parents’? Should a parent innately recognize his or her biological child from the mass of squallers lying in basinets in a hospital nursery? Such questions and the internal uproar they generate are the unsettling domain of Like Father, Like Son.