Reshaping a classic babies-switched-at-birth plot into a thoughtful exploration of the meaning of parenthood, Japanese helmer Hirokazu Kore-eda's "Like Father, Like Son" is a characteristically low-key but supple treatment of familial bonds, expectations and responsibilities that reverberates with heartrending impact. The age-old nature-vs.-nurture debate emerges naturally from a comparison between two very different families, but it's the story's intent focus on one father's intimacy issues and redemptive transformation that makes the film so sublimely moving. Warm critical response will ensure long fest legs but, like Kore-eda's other works, the pic will struggle to find a home beyond niche arthouse release.
Kore-eda has chosen a subject with no lack of precedents, notably in Etienne Chatillez's "Life Is a Long, Quiet River" (1988). Yet despite its well-worn elements, "Like Father, Like Son" is still thematically of a piece with the helmer's own films dealing with the abandonment or separation of children, "Nobody Knows" (2004) and "I Wish" (2011). As usual, the director retains his controlled style even as he moves toward a more traditional narrative mode.
The film begins with a stiff, decorous school entrance interview, during which well-groomed 6-year-old Keita (Keita Ninomiya) relates how his father, Ryota Nonomiya (Masashi Fukuyama), taught him to fly a kite on a family camping trip. One finds out later that it was a lie drilled into the boy in preparation for the interview, and that Ryota is a driven architect who never spends time with his family. Not that he doesn't love his docile, mousy wife, Midori (Machiko Ono), or Keita, for whom he has planned a successful future and a rigid, demanding activity sheet to help get him there.
But the Nonomiyas' lives are turned upside down when they learn that the hospital where Midori gave birth mistakenly switched infants, so Keita actually belongs to suburban appliance storeowners Yudai and Yukari Saiki (Lily Franky and Yoko Maki) Saiki, who have unwittingly raised the Nonomiyas' son, Ryusei (Hwang Sho-gen), as their own. The two families arrange gatherings for their children to mingle, and begin a trial system of exchanging the boys on weekends.
This gives rise to some gently ironic contrasts between the bourgeois Nonomiyas' elegant but finicky lifestyle and the Saikis' unkempt, anything-goes existence. But rather than aiming for Chatillez's savage social satire, the class differences here are merely a natural extension of the two couples' respectively uptight and easygoing personalities. Similarly, Kore-eda doesn't accentuate the boys' differences so much as show how quickly children adapt to their surroundings, as seen in some marvelously sweet scenes in which the timid, well-behaved Keita blends in with his carefree Saiki siblings and bonds with his affectionate, playful biological father, Yudai, to Ryota's mild chagrin.
Ryota initially tries to buy off the penny-pinching Saikis so he can keep both Keita and Ryusei, but when this plan backfires, he starts heeding the counsel of his father (Isao Natsuyagi), which is that the bloodline counts more. Although the Saikis may occupy a slightly idealized portrait of a working-class household, the mannered, disciplined existence Nonomiya tries to impose on his family is clearly a veneer for his underlying vulnerability.
In typical Kore-eda fashion, it takes an accretion of small incidents, rather than any melodramatic confrontation, for Ryota to realize where his genuine affections lie. A nuanced scene in which he visits his father and stepmother, and an encounter with the nurse responsible for the swap, reveal his own childhood hangups and a poignant explanation for his adult behavior.
Singer-songwriter-thesp Fukuyama carefully tweaks his cocky intellectual persona as seen in the popular TV drama "Galileo" and its film version, "Suspect X." Though Ryota is initially drawn as arrogant and entitled, his workaholic habits are considered the norm in Japan, as many fathers less successful than Ryota must conform to corporate culture against their wishes. A conversation between Ryota and Yudai poses the film's central question: Is parenthood defined by blood, or by the time that parent and child spend together? The ending offers an answer at once ambiguous and strangely reassuring.
While the mannerisms of artist-writer-thesp Franky work in fitting counterpart to Fukushima's studied perf, the two female leads display less range, and will be considered overly passive characters by Western auds. Mikiya Takimoto's crisp lensing and beguilingly simple camera setups are complemented by the use of Bach's Goldberg Variations to evoke a range of moods, from contemplative to light-hearted to somber. Other tech credits are polished; the Japanese title means "Then, One Becomes a Father."