This will be one of the most wrenching O. Henry-esque stories most viewers could ever hope to see. When an overachieving father learns his six year old son was switched at birth, he assumes biology trumps their parental bond. However, exchanging children proves to be far more complicated than he expects in Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Like Father, Like Son,” which opens this Friday in New York.
The driven Ryota Nonomiya has always excelled at everything, except maybe parenting. He always assumed his gentle son Keita simply took after his passive wife, Midori. However, when their maternity hospital announces the mistake (deliberately caused by a mentally disturbed nurse), everything suddenly makes sense to him.
Initially, he agrees to meet the Saikis, a big, sloppily affectionate working class family, along with his biological son, Ryusei, ostensibly adopting a wait-and-see attitude. Yet, his wife can tell he has already made up his mind but is constitutionally incapable of protesting.
To make matters worse, Ryota starts to wonder if the Saikis got the better end of the deal. Frankly, many parents will find it absolutely flummoxing that the Nonomiyas could ever let go of a sweet-tempered moppet like Keita, but Koreeda’s screenplay is examining and to an extent critiquing attitudes rooted in a very specific cultural context (forthcoming DreamWorks remake notwithstanding). Without question, he advocates greater emphasis on nurture over nature, in just about every sense.
Playing his near namesake Keita Nonomiya, young Keita Ninomiya is a major reason why “Like Father” is so massively poignant. He is ridiculously cute, but also devastatingly effective in his big dramatic scenes. Likewise, despite Midori’s submissive nature (which might set some western viewers’ teeth on edge), Machiko Ono’s arrestingly sensitive performance is deeply affecting.
In contrast, Masaharu Fukuyama is rigorously disciplined as the coolly detached Ryota, earning his payoff the hard way. To their credit (and that of Koreeda), the Saikis are also given real heft and dimension by Lily Franky and Yoko Maki, rather than serving as anti-Nonomiya strawmen.
Again, Koreeda demonstrates a distinctly wise and forgiving sensibility for family drama as well as an unusual facility for directing children. It might be a cliché, but it is hard not to dub the natural heir to Yasujir? Ozu based on “Like Father” and his previous films, like “I Wish” and “Still Walking.”
A mature work from a contemporary master, “Like Father, Like Son” is highly recommended for general audiences when it opens Jan. 17 in New York at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, please visit www.jbspins.blogspot.com
Like Father, Like Son
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring: Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono, Yôko Maki
Run Time: 2 hours, 1 minute
Release Date: Jan. 17
4 out of 5 stars