Recent speculation regarding Steven Spielberg’s intentions to remake “Like Father, Like Son” seems somewhat counterintuitive. Certainly, Kore-eda’s invocation of the traditional Absent Father plants him firmly in Spielbergian territory, but his gentle directorial touch is difficult to imagine translated into American blockbuster storytelling. (It’s telling that Kore-eda’s most salably high-concept feature, 1998’s “After Life”, has yet to be seized and reworked by Hollywood—if that won’t fly stateside, what could?.) And yet there is a certain entertainment-industry logic at work here. Each of Kore-eda’s nine fiction features to date proceeds, with varying degrees of nuance, from a fairly sensational premise, and on paper they have a tendency to sound more like broad daytime soap operas than the typically subtle, even minimalistic dramas they are. “Like Father, Like Son” is no exception: it relates the high-tragic story of the Nonomiya family, bourgeois condo-dwellers in Tokyo who discover that a hospital’s administrative error six years earlier sent them home, in a requisite flurry of postpartum confusion, carrying and caring for somebody else’s newborn son.
This, of course, is quite literally a sitcom premise—ABC Family’s wildly popular “Switched at Birth” has mined the cliche to comic ends for some years now. And why not? The dilemma is rich in dramatic possibility. Predictably, Kore-eda deemphasizes the cosmic gravitas inherent in such circumstances, preferring instead to chart the attendant reverberations as they thrum across quiet lives. When it arrives, early in the first act, the revelation of the swap itself seems less catastrophic than the question of follow-through it inevitably poses, and it’s typical of his sensibility that Kore-eda opts to linger on the impact of procedure and social custom rather than more overtly dramatic elements already brought into play. Consider it a function of pragmatism: the film’s tidy emotional framework will brook no indulgence or excess, regarding outward displays of turmoil or extended hand-wringing of any kind as resolutely beyond its purview. So it is that young Keita, wide-eyed at six, becomes little more than currency to be exchanged with his biological parents, whose own possession of the Nonomiya’s birth son Ryusei drags the lot of them into tentative familial warfare and, worse, looming litigation.
Counseled on both sides to amend the hospital’s error by switching back, both parties remain duly hesitant to commit, and much of the film’s running time finds the families adjusting to the arrangement while gradually inuring themselves to the heartbreak of loss. A major appeal here, obviously, is the suggestion of a hypothetical—you are encouraged to ponder the moral implications of the problem by imagining yourself confronted by it. Doubtless Kore-eda’s self-effacing style facilitates precisely these kinds of empathic projections. The problem is thus one of characterization. Not unlike Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation”, “Like Father, Like Son” delineates its warring families along class lines, aligning us from the beginning with a husband and wife in the comfortable middle-class before pitting them, and in a sense us, against a pair from a lower stratum. It’s here that Kore-eda errs.
Given its sensitivity in other areas, the film’s conception of its own class divide is stunningly trite. Ryota, Nonomiya family patriarch and quintessential movie “businessman”, has a vaguely described office job to which he devotes himself completely, neglecting the attentions of his wife and child as he endeavors selflessly to provide for them. He is contrasted, naturally, with Yudai Saiki, a working class electrician whose lack of wealth entails an apparent charm and nobility. Ryota is a man of means made cold by his deference to poise and composure; Yudai, on the other hand, is a man scraping by made loving and carefree by a life of relative leisure. Ryota and Yudai are polar opposites of finance and disposition, one suspects because in Kore-eda’s world the latter is defined by the former.
That two so starkly divided men would find themselves suddenly thrust into child-rearing opposition is a contrivance one ought to be willing, in the context of an unabashedly overdetermined film, to more or less forgive. What’s harder to forgive is simply the question this division forces us to ask: who makes the better father, the rich man without feeling or the poor man bursting with it? The question demands little thought, and the answer demands no interest. Here the film is starved for the kind of nuance Kore-eda wields effortlessly elsewhere. What’s left without it is something merely schematic.