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-[Film Reviews]-, East Asian Cinema, Japanese Cinema

‘Like Father, Like Son’ (2013): The Ties that Bind

Directed by: Hirokazu Kore-eda || Produced by: Kaoru Matsuzaki, Hijiri Taguchi

Screenplay by: Hirokazu Kore-eda || Starring: Masaharu Fukuyama, Yōko Maki, Jun Kunimura, Machiko Ono

Music by: Shin Yasui || Cinematography: Mikiya Takimoto || Edited by: Hirokazu Kore-eda || Country: Japan || Language: Japanese

Running Time: 120 minutes

About halfway through Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son, a drama about two families who discover their respective 6-year old sons were swapped at birth in their hospital, I cycled through how I, as a recent first-time father of a 4-month old, would handle a similar nightmarish situation. I recall the extensive protocols we underwent to ensure the identities of newborns were inexorably linked to their biological parents (e.g. matching wrist bracelets on the mother and child, electronic trackers tied to newborns’ ankles, continuous reviewing of all identifying traits within each family unit, etc.). As users noted on an online subreddit I stumbled upon, standard operating procedures like those are based on real-world experiences, close calls, and previous mistakes made, that safety regulations are written in blood.

Top: Our two married couples meet for the first time to exchange photographs of each other’s respective biological sons. Bottom: Later in the film, both families meet for an outdoor fishing trip as they try to finalize plans to “exchange” their mismatched children.

When a film makes you think about its thematic implications like that, that’s often a sign of an effective filmmaking effort, at least on a more subjective, emotional level. I tried my best, once the film ended, to break down Like Father, Like Son (henceforth, LFLS; Japanese = そして父になるSoshite Chichi ni Naru, or “… and then He Became a Father”) while divorcing my still burgeoning parental status from my amateur film analysis. On the one hand, LFLS remains a potent film on a universal human level thanks to its stark, unembellished, well edited portrayal of two families and one father in particular (Masaharu Fukuyama) undergoing a crisis of identity, or rather of relationship responsibility. Its stripped down audiovisual style is, for the most part, an overwhelming strength thanks to how serious its central premise feels regardless of a viewer’s personal background.

At the same time, the screenplay itself is straightforward to the point of predictability, because a realistic portrayal of a social dilemma like this can only end one of a couple ways; to that end, all the main characters depicted here are themselves normal, relatable human beings. Nobody is a cringeworthy stereotype, these are not two-dimensional archetypes for a genre film, nor are we watching a melodramatic television soap opera — this is a serious, grounded, straightforward drama (you know, the kind of movie I normally sneer at that performs well in awards circuits), so the cast portray characters you could interact with on a daily basis. Again, that committed realism is LFLS’s strength much of the time, yet you have to keep in mind that no crazy plot-device or character revelations will work in a story like this; what you see is what you get.

As far as direction goes, LFLS emphasizes set-design, character blocking, and general mise-en-scène over creative editing patterns or flashy camerawork, comparable to many older European dramas or likeminded East Asian character pieces. LFLS‘ look and tone recall numerous aspects of Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car (2021) in particular, though I’d argue those minimalist cinematographic techniques work far better in Kore-eda’s picture because (1) the cast’s performances resemble warm, relatable people instead of monotone robots, and (2) LFLS isn’t three hours long.

Kore-eda’s restrained direction is so striking that I’m curious to see how much this style carries over to his greater filmography’s wide variety of controversial tear-jerker topics (e.g. children raised in isolation and then abandoned by their mother in Nobody Knows [2004], brothers split apart due to divorced parents in I Wish [2011], a family living in abject poverty who survive through thievery in Shoplifters [2018], etc.). His screenplays’ premises stand out to me relative to most other “serious, dramatic” filmmakers, which is what first caught my attention when researching Kore-eda, but his almost voyeuristic, fly-on-the-wall directorial perspective is what held me when first watching LFLS.

For one thing, the film is dominated by long and medium shots (for the opposite, see Blue is the Warmest Color [2013]), with close-ups reserved for crucial thematic punctuation within a select few scenes and extreme close-ups used even more sparingly. The latter shots gain power in part because of their rarity. Related to the aforementioned is the almost imperceptible manner in which cinematographer Mikiya Takimoto moves the camera throughout LFLS. The camera does indeed move and quite often — this isn’t a Yasujiro Ozu picture — but you almost never feel it because the camera will pan or tilt ever so slightly when a character moves to the edge of the frame in wide shots. You have to consciously watch for this, which I didn’t notice until almost halfway through the film. Tracking shots are seldom used but most always dollies, which themselves don’t scream for attention either because of their slow-moving, patient subjects; a big exception to this is the movie’s notable, final — and I believe only — crane shot, which ties the story’s themes together in a nice, shiny bow.

Lead Masaharu Fukuyama reconciles with his diegetic son (adopted, not biological), Keita Nonomiya, whose actual family name doubles as his film family’s.

Put another way, Like Father, Like Son’s nightmarish yet plausible dramatic scenario, paired with its meticulous yet restrained visual style, forces the viewer to empathize with its characters’ unenviable positions regardless of the story’s greater predictability. You know a narrative like this can only end in one of two ways, and to misuse a quote from David Fincher, “The other way is wrong.” Hirokazu Kore-eda asks questions about familial identity, parenthood (fatherhood in particular), and the ties that bind loved ones together that have been asked on screen numerous times before, but not in this precise way. By allowing the viewer to deconstruct these characters from a distance, he encourages his audience to put themselves in the cast’s shoes and ask themselves if they could ever abandon one child for another.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Whether you sit more on the nature or nurture side of the child upbringing debate, Like Father, Like Son visually describes the interplay between biological and social legacy without loaded questions, preaching, or much emotional camerawork of any kind. Without trying to tug at your heartstrings, I’d argue Hirokazu Kore-eda more effectively stirs one’s emotions because the unembellished yet deliberate cinematography passively allows viewers to project themselves onto the screen.

However… once the first act concludes, the viewer can spot the ending from a mile way, even if the journey outweighs the destination.

—> RECOMMENDED for serious parental introspection.

? How much longer are those parents gonna, you know… bathe with those children?

About The Celtic Predator

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