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Like Father, Like Son

Posted by martinteller on March 4, 2014

Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) and Midori (Machiko Ono) Nonomiya love their 6-year-old son Keita (Keita Nonomiya).  Ryota is a tradition-minded salaryman, throwing his life into his work so he can afford his family the best things in life.  He strives to enroll Keita in the best schools and is strict about making sure the boy practices the piano.  Then comes the shocking news that they were given the wrong baby.  Their blood child is Ryusei (Shôgen Hwang), who has been raised by the equally unaware Yudai (Rirî Furankî) and Yukari (Yôko Maki) Saiki.  Yudai has a less buttoned-down approach to life, and runs a hole-in-the-wall appliance store.  The atmosphere in the Saiki household for Ryusei (and his two younger siblings) is less strict.  The Nonomiyas and Saikis come together to try to decide what to do about this situation, exchanging sons on the weekends with the hopes of assimilating them into their new homes with their actual blood relations.

Fractured families are a recurring theme in the work of director Hirokazu Kore-eda.  In Maborosi, a woman deals with her husband’s suicide.  In Nobody Knows, four children are left to their own devices by a flaky space cadet of a mother.  In Still Walking, an old death looms over a strained family reunion.  And in I Wish (haven’t seen it yet, but will be watching it soon), two brothers are separated by divorce.  Like a modern-day Ozu, Kore-eda is picking up the contemporary Japanese family and examining it from all angles.  Although few families will have to cope with switched-at-birth scenarios, Kore-eda seems to be preparing his audience for a society that more and more challenges the traditional family structures.

And he does so with grace and nuance.  In this film, he is not dismissing the idea that bloodlines are important, but he opens up the definition of “family” to be more inclusive.  He does not seem to be hammering at a particular agenda, but gently unwrapping a complex problem.  The one place where Kore-eda falters in his subtlety is in the character of Ryota.  For too much of the film, he’s stubborn and distant and cold.  Kore-eda is smart enough not to cast him as an outright villain, but scene after scene of Ryota making unsympathetic choices starts to wear on the viewer (the film does feel a little long).  I wanted to see a little more humanity in this guy throughout the movie, not just at the beginning and the end.

Nonetheless, Fukuyama’s performance is superb, as are all the other parental roles.  After Nobody Knows, I’m not surprised to see Kore-eda coax fantastic performances from the juvenile actors, who are all very, very impressive.  It’s impossible not to love these kids, who often lend the film a rich and wonderful humor.  This lightness of touch is much appreciated in a story that could so easily veer into maudlin sentimentality.  No such missteps here.  Kore-eda does not exploit these families for cheap tear-jerking moments, and his restrained approach makes the emotional content resonate.  In the end, he casts a protective layer of wires over this circumstantially expanded clan, shielding them from harm.  Despite some problems with the Ryoto character, I found this to be a compelling story, a thoughtful approach to an intriguing “What would I do?” scenario, and beautifully executed.  Rating: Very Good (83)


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