Japanese family film more nurture than nature 

click to enlarge COURTESY PHOTO
  • courtesy photo
Filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda brings a Japanese lens and a personal stamp to the nature vs. nurture debate in the switched-at-birth tale “Like Father, Like Son.” While he may not say anything new, he has spun a premise with high-pablum potential into a quietly moving blend of fable and unsudsy melodrama.

As with Koreeda’s “Still Walking,” “Nobody Knows” and “I Wish,” the film tells an intimate story about family, fractured by loss or abandonment. It doesn’t achieve knockout status, but it is absorbing, tickles the funny bone and makes a lasting impression.

Ryoda Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama), a workaholic, emotionally detached Tokyo architect, leads a comfortable life with his devoted wife, Midori (Machiko Ono) and their obedient 6-year-old, Keita (Keita Ninomiya).

Complacency shatters when hospital administrators inform Ryoda and Midori that Keita isn’t their biological son. A baby-switch landed Keita in the care of the pair, while their own boy, now called Ryusei (Shogen Hwang), has been living in a rundown but loving abode with an appliance-store owner named Yudai Saiki (Riri Furanki) and his wife, Yukari (Yoko Maki).

Citing Japanese traditions that consider bloodlines the determining factor, authorities urge the couples to swap children. The families begin the process with weekend sleepovers.

The arrangement brings out the classism and arrogance in Ryota, who deems the Saikis inferior parents. He tries to mold his real son, Ryu, in his own sophisticated, go-getter image.

Confusion, frustration, sadness and, sometimes, humorous parent-child bonding result, in various proportions, for all concerned. Fatherhood means more than DNA, Ryoda realizes.

Perhaps cultural differences are responsible, but the film requires some disbelief suspension. It’s simply hard to believe that parents would give up children they’ve raised and loved.

Additional challenges include Koreeda’s restrained style, which affects accessibility.

More problematic still are the stereotypical portrayals of rich versus poor and the passiveness of the women.

Overall, this is a quietly touching, amusing and surprisingly memorable film about what constitutes true parenthood and family.

Rather than spell out the obvious, Koreeda captures how the people who raise you shape you. A visual nugget involving a drinking straw suggests the little ways in which Ryu resembles his nonbiological dad, for starters.

The performances are solid. Fukuyama, while not a powerhouse, handles Ryota’s transformation ably.

The kids are natural and believable and have a spring in their being, in tune with Koreeda’s interest in the spirit of children.

REVIEW

Like Father, Like Son

Starring Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono, Riri Furanki, and Yoko Maki

Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda

Running time 120 minutes

Not rated

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Anita Katz

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