It is not hard to see why the ‘switched at birth’ concept has been used to such a degree. Inherently it is an idea that brings with it a great deal of relatable drama. Where the foundation of everything a life was built upon instantaneously implodes. The question then becomes how is that drama handle. Is it simply an exercise in melodrama or does it explore something meaningful?
Like Father, Like Son is a clear example of the latter as it treats the material with the utmost sincerity. Most of its makeup is familiar. This is not the type of film that will win acclaim due to its groundbreaking story structure. Rather it is through its delicate handling of the situation that makes it such a standout. Not to mention its superb performances that give a face to this horrible situation.
Director Hirokazu Koreeda examines the essence of parenthood and all its joys and downfalls. Placing us in a situation where complex questions are given no easy answers. From the start we see a family that is financially secure but emotionally distant. Ryota Nonomiya played by Masaharu Fukuyama is consumed with success. Everything he does from his work life to his parenting philosophy is designed to ensure the greatest financial and professional acclaim is reached for him and his family. Leaving his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) to raise their son with a dad who is nearly never there.
After a blood test reveals his six-year-old son is not his or his wife’s an investigation is launched to discover what happened. Soon they learn a mix-up occurred in the hospital causing two families to go home with the wrong baby. Now these families are left with a decision no one ever wants to make. Do they give up the child they have been raising for the past six years for the son that is naturally there’s, or do they decide to keep their current child fully knowing they are not the biological parents.
Yukari (Yôko Maki) and Yuda Saikii (Rirî Furankî) are the opposing victims to this same horrendous mistake. Coming from a more working class background their parenting style differs a great deal as they show much more affection and love to all of their children. They also lack discipline as they always show up late and are consumed with the prospect of making money from the hospital’s error.
This polar opposite parenting style is best summed up with their numerous meetings with one another at a children’s play center. Yuda is the type of father who will partake in all the fun with the children by jumping into a ball pit like an overgrown child. While the children look on with glee, Ryota looks on with disgust that a man who act so childish.
As mention we have seen this type of idea before. The rich cold family with the stern demeanor and the supposed poorer family with the unblemished positive outlook is a known trope. Within this context that trope does provide some intrigue. It flips the classic nature vs nurture debate completely on its head. Causing us to ask what truly is the better situation.
As one would expect this decision is not made overnight. Both families are given time to decide on what route they wish to take. A compelling dynamic builds between Midori and Ryota as they try to determine what to do. Throughout this time we get to learn more about Ryota to better understand the way he operates. On the surface many of his actions and feelings towards others seem selfish. As we learn more about who he is underneath we get to see there is much more to him.
Of all the characters Ryota goes through the biggest journey. At first there is an almost sense of relief knowing the son that has disappointed him is not his own. His son’s failings are not his fault but a byproduct of his bloodline. There is the hope that it will make the switch easier to process. However, that pesky element of love is not as easy to detach from. He is faced to asked himself if the son that does not share is blood is more like him than he is willing to admit.
Another unique angle Like Father, Like Son gives us is the window it provides to this unique culture. As foreign films often do it takes a universal situation and adds a cultural subtext. Simply being made by another country does not make it better, but it is a natural benefit that should be recognized. A great example of this is the relationship of Midori and Ryota. At first their responsibilities in marriage seem permanently defined. As the situation progresses it becomes clear that definition is adjusting, and within that adjustment comes some unexpected challenges.
Frustration can occur while watching a movie for a number a reasons. Often it is due to a film not being successful or leaving you disappointed. The frustration Like Father, Like Son evokes is a testament to its success. You will yearn for a complete resolution where everything is made right, instead as the film moves the situation only complicates itself. Every character is sympathetic in their own way. Any avenue that is chosen is going to lead to regret of some sort, and yet it never devolves into a form of misery porn that berates you with sadness. There is a sense of joy about the beauty of parenting, and it is not afraid to share in the positives of what this type of tragedy may yield. By revealing the fragility of biological truth it makes the value of authentic emotional relationships all the more important.