Like Father, Like Son (2013) — Image via le-pacte.com

Like Father, Like Son

Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda (2013)

Hirokazu Koreeda’s Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru) is a heartfelt if sometimes frustrating meditation on a topic that has been explored by many writers and filmmakers yet never seems to get old: how does a family build and maintain a structure in which members can both give and receive love genuinely and freely? Through the struggles, missteps, and realizations of two families, the Nonomiyas and the Saikis, we are reminded that there are as many answers to this question as there are families that manage to coexist successfully.

The storyline is a simple one that will be familiar to any fan of Renaissance, Victorian, or Edwardian drama. Two baby boys are born on the same day in the same hospital, and a nurse (Megumi Morisaki) who is dissatisfied with her life decides to vent her frustration on the two families by switching the babies. Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) and Midori (Machiko Ono) Nonomiya’s son goes to the Saikis, who name him Ryusei (Shôgen Hwang), and Yukari (Yôko Maki) and Yudai (Rirî Furankî) Saiki’s son goes to the Nonomiyas, who name him Keita (Keita Ninomiya). Six years later, both families learn the truth, and the bulk of the film follows the anger, uncertainty, and eventual acceptance that results.

The differences between the Nonomiyas and the Saikis are extreme in superficial ways and minimal in important ways. The Nonomiyas live an upper-class urban existence, with Ryota working long hours at an urban development firm and Midori working as a stay-at-home mother to Keita, who is an only child. The Saikis, who have two children besides Ryusei, live a less prosperous and more provincial existence; Yukari owns an electronics store, and Yudai works at a restaurant. Both sets of parents, despite their different incomes, homes, religious practices, and parenting styles, undoubtedly love the children they believe to be their own. Of the four parents, Ryota is clearly the most stern and work-obsessed, but even so, we see him celebrating milestones with Keita (such as his acceptance into a competitive primary school), and certainly we aren’t meant to think that Ryota’s limited time spent parenting indicates a lack of love.

Like Father, Like Son (2013) — Image via le-pacte.comDespite this love he clearly has for Keita, Ryota regularly expresses mild disappointment that his son is not the ambitious hard worker that he himself is. Indeed, when Ryota learns that it is Ryusei and not Keita who is biologically related to him, he initially feels relief and takes refuge in the thought that perhaps Keita’s “failures” (such as not being very adept at the piano despite daily practice) are not a result of his own bad parenting, or even just circumstance, but rather stem from the fact that Keita takes after his “real” father, whom Ryota believes to be lazy and uncultured. Beyond Ryota’s suppositions, the film constantly questions whether Keita’s and Ryusei’s behaviors can be attributed more to genetics or socialization, and, thankfully, it refuses to come to any conclusion on which plays a bigger role in the formation of each of the boys’ personalities. In fact, as Keita and Ryusei begin to spend Saturdays with their birth parents, we see each boy attempt to please the strangers they have been told they are connected to, which clearly suggests that the affinity between parent and child grows more from time spent with each other than it does from biological connection.

Although the film asserts that the sharing of meaningful experiences and mutual tenderness define a family more than anything else, Ryota is slow to learn this lesson, largely because the desire to blame all of Keita’s apparent shortcomings on his “real” parentage is too alluring for Ryota to resist. Somewhat frustratingly but no doubt realistically, he doesn’t fully learn the error of his beliefs until the last fifteen minutes of the film, well after Keita and Ryusei have been returned to their biological parents. When Ryota sees that he and Ryusei do not share an immediate rapport (Ryusei bangs on the piano, making Ryota long for the gentle if flawed playing of Keita), Ryota begins to realize that Keita, whom he has helped raise for six years, is much more his son than Ryusei is.

As the film progresses, we come to understand that Ryota’s attitudes about parenting have been negatively impacted by his own familial history. In a conversation with Yukari, who is constantly shown interacting with Ryusei and his other two children in exuberant and loving ways, Ryota declares that his father (Isao Natsuyagi) “wasn’t the type to fly kites” with his children and goes on to imply that his own parenting has been affected by his distanced relationship with his father, despite his desire to give Keita a more loving upbringing than he had. His words are laced with a sense of resignation, and he seems to believe that despite his attempts to be a better parent than his own father was to him, there is only so far he is able to deviate from the ways he has always known. The parallels between Ryota and his father are sustained throughout most of the film. Ryota’s wife Midori mentions several times that he should be careful about his intake of cholesterol, we assume because his father has suffered three heart attacks by the film’s end. Similarly, both Ryota and his father seem to unquestionably locate strength and character in their shared blood (his father even goes so far as to compare humans to horses), a belief that nearly everyone else in the film tells them is nonsense.

Like Father, Like Son (2013) — Image via le-pacte.comWhile Ryota’s relationship with his father is one that will no doubt shape his life forever, its effects are not, we learn, insurmountable, and one positive thing that can be said about Ryota is that he is not immune to the opinions of others, even when they veer dramatically from his own. When Ryota confronts the nurse who switched the boys at birth, for example, it becomes clear to him that her sons, whom she did not give birth to, love her. Ryota is visibly heartened by the sight, and shortly after this interaction, he calls his stepmother (Jun Fubuki), a woman whom we are meant to think tried to nurture Ryota and his brother when they were children but was constantly rebuffed, at least by Ryota. (He mentions that as a child he ran away from home in search of his “real” mother.) When Ryota attempts to apologize to his stepmother for his inability to accept the love she tried to bestow upon him, she is sweet but dismissive. She tells him that she doesn’t want to dredge up the past and would rather talk to him about harmless topics such as who has had plastic surgery recently. This response is bittersweet. On one hand, Ryota seems thankful that she does not hold a grudge against him; on the other, one can’t help but wonder if their interactions will forever lack depth because of foolish notions Ryota has harbored about blood trumping love.

Indeed, if the film can be said to be about one thing, it is Ryota’s journey to an understanding that devotion and nurturance, and not DNA, are the glue that hold a family together. His initial inability to build a family that meets his expectations of what a happily functioning family should look like is made doubly ironic by the fact that his job involves making city infrastructure work well. In one early scene he gazes over a model of a park and tells his employee to add miniature models of families to the landscape to make it more pleasing to the client. In his life outside of work, he learns, creating a homey and nurturing space is not as easy.

This scene is a telling one, in that the gap that often exists between expectations and reality is another theme the film engages, and it is something that most of the characters struggle with either consciously or unconsciously. When Keita is interviewing for the aforementioned prestigious primary school, he tells the interviewer about a time that his parents took him camping and his father flew a kite with him. When Ryota later questions Keita about this event that never occurred, Keita tells his parents that the teacher who was coaching him for his interview told him to tell this story because it would indicate that he came from an “ideal” family. Ryota makes a passing comment about the coaches being good at their jobs; however, when Keita goes to live with the Saikis, who are shown flying kites regularly, Keita finds that he misses the Nonomiyas, who, despite what he may have told the school admissions board, are closer to his “ideal” family than he may have realized before he lost them.

Like Father, Like Son (2013) — Image via le-pacte.comSimilarly, when Ryusei misses the outdoorsy adventures of his previous life with the Saikis, the Nonomiyas stage a camping trip in their living room, complete with pretend fishing off the balcony. Although Ryusei appears to be enjoying the efforts of his new parents, he expresses a desire to return to the home he has always known, immediately apologizing afterwards, as if ashamed that he cannot seamlessly make the transition to his new family, who are, objectively speaking, perhaps more “ideal” than the parents he left behind. Throughout the film, the ideals that have been instilled in child and adult alike seem to come far second to actual realties that, flawed as they may be, have the power to make everyone happier than a narrow version of a perfect family ever could.

Although I enjoyed the film overall, one aspect that I found puzzling was why the child exchange occurred at all. Of the four parents involved, all but Ryota seemed to oppose the switch despite the fact that the hospital officials advocated it. The closest I can come to an explanation is that Midori, who was barely conscious after giving birth to Ryusei, feels guilty over her past inability to distinguish her “real” child from the one she was given and thus capitulates to Ryota’s wishes. But this still doesn’t explain why they Saikis were amenable to the exchange, particularly after Yudai vehemently declares that learning the truth about Ryusei’s parentage has in no way compromised the strength of her love for him. Seeing as Midori has spent six years of her life with Keita while Ryota worked long hours, it would have been nice to see her fight a little more ardently against the exchange. Failing that, it would have been helpful to have a little more detail as to the logistics of the situation, particularly given the majority view that the boys should continue to be raised by the parents they have always known.

I think that part of my quibble is due to the fact that blended, mixed, adopted, gay, and extended families are, at this point, mainstream, at least in the United States. (I admit to having no statistics about families in Japan.) As I saw each boy living with his main family through the week and visiting his birth family on the weekend, I couldn’t help but wonder why this arrangement couldn’t simply continue. If two loving parents are good, wouldn’t four be better? And wouldn’t each boy be enriched by spending time each week in an environment so different than the one he was used to? The short answer as to why this arrangement could not come to pass immediately is once more rooted in Ryota’s slowness in realizing that love will always outstrip blood. In this way the film gently critiques parents who labor under the impression that their genes are the most valuable thing they have to pass on to their children. While Ryota’s arrogance is understandable (it’s something that many parents feel, after all), it hinders the happiness of all involved and runs the risk of seriously damaging both Keita and Ryusei.

What’s ultimately important, though, is not that Ryota initially considers himself “better stock” than the Saikis, but that he eventually learns the error of this thinking. This allows the film to end hopefully; the last scene depicts the two families entering the Saikis’ home, after it has been implied that Ryusei will return to the Saikis and Keita to the Nonomiyas, at least for the greater part of each week. While this solution is not specifically stated, it is suggested by the interaction Ryota has with Keita, one in which Ryota contritely asks Keita’s forgiveness for treating him so callously. The film leaves open the possibility that each boy has gained an extended family, a group of caring adults that will extend the powers of a conventional nuclear family, and that everyone will be better off because of this.

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Emily Anderson

is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She teaches literature and writing at several local educational institutions.