Like Father, Like Son, directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
By Christian Hamaker
What kind of love story do you like to watch on Valentine’s Day? A lighthearted story in which a man and woman meet cute, fall in love, break up and then find a way back together? A three-hankie weeper in which one of the lovers dies? A standard rom-com that doesn’t challenge you but delivers exactly what you want? Stories of love and loss come in different shapes and sizes. This last Valentine’s Day weekend brings a different type of love story—one between parents and their children—to select markets in North America. Director Hirokazu Kore-eda (Nobody Knows, I Wish) has been making beautiful films about parents and children for several years, and film lovers have noticed. While the director’s work hasn’t caught fire in the United States, international awards have raised his international profile.
Kore-eda’s new film, Like Father, Like Son, is the latest case in point. Winner of the Cannes Jury Prize in 2013, the film also won the festival’s Ecumenical Jury Prize, created by Christian filmmakers to “honor works of artistic quality which witnesses to the power of film to reveal the mysterious depths of human beings through what concerns them, their hurts and failings as well as their hopes.”
Like Father, Like Son certainly fits that description, yet as with Kore-eda’s previous films, Like Father, Like Son has seen tepid North American box-office results so far. The film continues to expand into new markets and is well worth seeing if it’s playing near you.
But it’s Ryota and Midori who are about to encounter a struggle. The hospital where their son was born has informed them that their child was switched at birth with another boy, Ryusi, who lives with the Saiki family: a husband, wife and two siblings. The dad is a self-proclaimed procrastinator—the furthest thing from Ryota’s all-work-and-no-play approach to life. Yet his children seem happy and well adjusted.Ryota is a successful architect but not-so-successful father. He’s convinced that his workaholic lifestyle will be a benefit to his young son, Keita, in whom he wants to instill a similar work ethic. “Ryota thinks [Keita] should work hard now rather than struggle later,” explain Ryota’s wife, Midori.The couples are brought together by the hospital, which explains the situation and leaves to them the decision about whether to switch the children back to their biological families. The families decide to proceed cautiously, allowing the boys to visit with their biological families for short stays ahead of a longer-term arrangement.
The adjustment is hard on one of the boys in particular, but it may be hardest of all for Ryota. Like Father, Like Son raises questions of nature versus nurture before pivoting to a more in-depth examination of Ryota’s parenting philosophy. Japanese culture is perceived in America as very work-oriented, while America has become increasingly child-centric. The impact of those approaches can be seen in shifts in workplace policies in America, where women and men are given time off from their jobs after the birth of a baby. Telecommuting and telework also have become more popular in the United States, allowing parents to be more available for their kids during the day.
Employment policies are specific to individual countries, but the love a parent feels for a child is universal. So are the challenges of raising children, whether they’re born to us or adopted into our families. Like Father, Like Son doesn’t spell out a correct formula for child-rearing, but it suggests that choosing work at the expense of raising children can be regrettable. Although the story isn’t given an outwardly Christian context, it contains potent moments of confession of sin and attempts to make restitution. Like Father, Like Son isn’t a romantic film, but it will remind you of the power of a simple hug, and the importance of coming to terms with one’s own failings. That might not sound like a typical Valentine’s Day fare, but it’s hard to think of a more powerful lesson in love among current releases.