Like Father Like Son

Kore-eda Hirokazu can do no wrong! Enthralled by his two recent films, I Wish(2011) and Shoplifters (2018), I sought out Like Father, Like Son(2013) via my Curzon Home Cinema membership (what a joy that is btw). These three form a triptych of movies with the meaning of family as the central theme.

Finding out your beloved child is not biologically your own ranks up there as a parent’s worst nightmare. Ryota is a driven young architect, a caricature of the fabled Japanese middle-class striver who deems success at work as more important than family life. He has a beautiful wife, Midori, who has sacrificed her career in order to look after their adorable six-year-old son, Keita.

Ryota finds it hard to accept that his son is not a genius (like he was), not musical (like he was) nor assertive (like he was) but is shy, slow on the uptake and loving, as Ryota certainly is not. Ryota forces him to play the piano, do extra maths, and is continually angered by his failure to live up to his paternal role model. Midori tries to protect her son from this bullying and hectoring by wrapping him in her devotion.

A fateful phone call from the hospital explaining that their son was swapped at birth provides a gratifying explanation for this failure of genes. Ryota cannot wait to see his own flesh and blood. A meeting is arranged and Ryota is horrified by the family who has brought up his son Ryusei. They are low-class shopkeepers, whose higgledy-piggledy home, with tatami sleeping mats, sprawling untidy rooms, and a garden, is in stark contrast to Ryota’s immaculate apartment in a luxury tower block. Their white van does not hold a candle to the Lexus.

As for the parents, Yudai and Yukari, they could not be more different in their cheap hippy-style clothes, and their happy-go-lucky attitude to child rearing. He is horrified as he watches Yudai larking around with his children and buying junk food which they all guzzle with relish. But he is gratified that his real son is a chip-off-the-old-block, a smartass streetwise kid, albeit a nicer one due to his loving upbringing. A scene with Ryota’s father simply reinforces all our prejudices about what makes us who we are; in this case a combination of both nature and nurture, something it takes Ryota a while to start questioning.

With a predictable inevitability Ryota bullies Yudai and Yukari to agree to return the boys to their respective families. Surely it is right for the boys to be with their genetic parents, rather than their adoptive ones?  He has no compunction in removing both children, against Midori’s wishes, from their familiar environments with heartbreaking consequences. Poor Keiko who simply cannot understand why he is being rejected (is it because he was so hopeless at the school piano recital?) by the man he believes to be his father. Even Ryusei bridles at being told to call Ryota and Midori ‘mum’ and ‘dad’. 

The film gently explores the meaning of family by teasing out our assumptions and prejudices. This is made easier by the stark contrast in the families, but the film’s success lies in the performances of the four main actors. Lily Franky, the Fagin of Shoplifters, is beguiling as the slightly off-the-wall shopkeeper, who exudes an aura of the perfect dad, loving, kind and fun; while Yoko Maki’s Yukari, a woman who, due to their circumstances has to work in a fast food joint, is in strict contrast to the refined Midori (Machiko Ono). Ono’s is a moving portrait of a mother’s love and demonstrates that blood line is not everything.

This is a masterpiece of storytelling; one that deals with some of the key questions of our lives. It resonates deeply with me as I have just spent eight years writing a book on these very issues of hereditary behaviour. As this film demonstrates, there are no easy answers.

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