The film Still Walking by Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda has been on my to-watch list for a little while. It’s supposed to be one of the better films from Japan in the last few years, examining how a family commemorates the death of a son and celebrates life in the process. I was thoroughly charmed by Koreeda’s slight yet adorable I Wish when I caught that at a screening last year, but Still Walking is supposed to be a real masterpiece full of depth, and the proper showcase for the director’s gifts.
I bring up both of those movies because they offer some insight into my read of Koreeda’s Like Father, Like Son. In this exploration of nature and nurture, Koreeda renders diametric distinctions between generations, classes, value systems, and appearances. I think there’s also a kind of clash between the complexities of real life and the oversimplifications of film stories, and the urge for sweetness when what seems more genuine is bittersweet frustration.
[For the next few weeks, we’ll be covering the 2013 New York Film Festival, now in its 51st year. Flixist will provide you with reviews, video, news, and features on some of the best films on the festival circuit. To check out all of our coverage of NYFF51, click here.]
Like Father, Like Son (Soshite Chichi ni Naru | そして父になる)
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Release Date: September 23, 2013 (Japan)
The question of nature vs. nurture is an unanswerable existential riddle, but it seems like most people reduce it to the stuff of Psych 101. Our genes and our upbringing share in defining our personalities, but the split is never 50/50. This is the set up for Like Father, Like Son. Two couples learn that their children were switched at birth six years ago. One couple is well-off and lives in a sterile high-rise, the other is working/lower class and lives in the space above their small knickknack and fix-it shop. The heartbroken parents have to decide what to do about their kids and what this decision will mean for the rest of their lives.
At the center of film is Ryota, a workaholic architect played by Masaharu Fukuyama. The revelation that Keita (Keita Ninomiya) is not his own flesh and blood hits him hard. Even though he’s struck by this, he attempts to react to this news rationally, as if he’s tamping down his emotions in order to think of matters purely in biological terms. His wife Midori (Machiko Ono) is much more conflicted. She’s a stay-at-home mom with deep ties to Keita, and there’s an added tenderness to the way she strokes Keita’s hair when she learns that this is really not her own.
By contrast, the working class couple played by Lily Frankly and Yoko Maki seem to take this news in stride. There’s a kind of “Que Sera, Sera” outlook to their tight-knit household. It’s the overly familiar motto of the happy lower class film character: we may not have much, but we have each other, and we can make things work with what we have. It’s a bit cliche, but Frankly and Maki make their characters feel like actual people trying to stay positive rather than just bubbly caricatures meant to mirror their affluent counterparts.
The vitality of the working class against the Vulcan-like affluent is just one of many juxtapositions Koreeda uses to highlight the idea of nature and nurture. Parents, elders, friends, and colleagues work their way into the story to emphasize this opposition, as do different skill sets and types of knowledge. Koreeda’s especially good at what he’s doing within the frame and how composition highlights the film’s deeper concerns. Sometimes he’s foregrounding information to get at some of Ryota and Midori’s inner lives, other times he’s playing with lighting and movement to enhance the delicate melancholy and little joys in this story.
Like Father, Like Son is an elegant film that’s intimately staged for most of its duration. Each shot is so well balanced, and most of the visual cues that evoke the nature/nurture divide are pretty subtle, including the requisite double helix structure that comes early on. This close observation also pays off in the performances, which are quiet and restrained. I Wish was filled with such naturalism by the children in that movie, and it carries over in Like Father, Like Son with child actors Ninomiya and Shogen Hwang. Their characters soldier through the adult turmoil surrounding them with innocent determination.
There’s a memorably bittersweet scene in Like Father, Like Son that involves Keita playing the piano. It’s embarrassing, it’s a great set-up to a joke, and it also highlights the opposing forces in Ryota’s character. Here’s a person who is successful and an exemplar of upper-class values, and he’s become hypercritical of Keita’s every shortcoming and hyper-aware of how superior he feels to Keita’s biological parents. When the film is at its best, it’s about the way people wrestle with their conflicting emotions regarding their perceived place in the world and how this affects the allegiance to the families they create and their own flesh and blood. How much is fixed like our genetic makeup? How much is in flux from life experience and circumstances beyond our control?
At a certain point, Like Father, Like Son veers away from the complexities of human relationships and starts to move toward simplification and convenient answers. It’s as if Koreeda felt obliged to explain the root of Ryota in too much detail, like the mental cause-and-effect in adult minds is so simple to unpack and then so easily resolved once the issue is identified. That pop psychology just undercuts the film’s movement toward depth.
It’s also during this last half hour that the imagery and ideas meant to highlight the nature/nurture divide become too apparent. One brief scene involving cicadas feels shoved in rather than organic, like a sudden disruption in the story. Another moment that involves parallel footpaths is too on the nose. Everything closes on a note that makes sense as an arc for these two families, but it also feels artificial and ultimately predictable. We’ve moved from the complexities of human love and family relations to a world that only exists in stories and relies on feel-good verities.
I still admire Like Father, Like Son for its general elegance of execution even if it moves toward treacle and sentimentality. It’s so humane and delicate for much of its run time and so nicely controlled even as it closes. Koreeda is able to find those beautiful similarities between sets of opposites, and also finds the necessary beauty of their differences.
[Like Father, Like Son will screen at Alice Tully Hall on Monday, September 30th and at the Francesca Beale Theater on Wednesday, October 2nd. For tickets and more information, click here.]