“They’re not pets.” Yudai Saiki (Rirî Furankî) is talking about his six-year-old son and another little boy, whom he and his wife Yukari (Yôko Maki) have just learned were switched at birth. Yudai sits across a table from the other parents, Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) and Midori (Machiko Ono), as all listen to a set of lawyers who advise, “Considering your children’s future, you should decide quickly,” decide, that is, whether to switch them back.
Yudai’s frustration speaks to the dilemma and the trauma at the center of Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru), as the adults find themselves responsible for their sons’ lives in ways they hadn’t previously imagined: how can he and the other parents understand and act on this responsibility, changing the course of the boys’ lives so deliberately and so definitively? At the same time, this idea — that the kids are not pets — underscores what Hirokazu Kore-eda’s movie does especially well, which is to represent children as people, not props, not appendages for adults, not pets.
These children include Keita (Keita Ninomiya), Yudai and Yukari’s biological son, raised so far by Ryo and Midori, and also Ryusei (Shôgen Hwang), living with the Saikis and their three other, younger children. As the adults work out a range of issues — each couple reexamines its own dynamic, the two mothers form an unanticipated if predictable bond, lawyers pursue a lawsuit against the hospital, both fathers reconsider what it means to be a father — these kids appear repeatedly in compositions that suggest their own processes, their efforts to understand the sudden changes in their lives and their parents.
Unsurprisingly, many of these images are close-ups: the kids’ expressive faces, the toys they treasure, the food on their plates. Others show them in spaces that delineate their emotional responses, as when Keita’s back is framed by a closet door, viewed from Yukari’s slightly taller position, or Ryusei walks away from and also along with Ryota, the camera tracking their movements along parallel paths in a park, separated by a railing until the paths converge. Hinting at the boys’ inner lives, such images allow you to imagine how the little boys sort out such turmoil, while the adults are more prone to articulate themes and morals.
Still, as much as the film’s representation of its child protagonists, including the Saikis’ younger children, is nuanced, its treatment of the fathers is not. The primary subject here is Ryo, a sleek-suited and workaholic architect introduced during a scene where Keita is interviewing for a spot in an elementary school. The family of three sits in one of those spare, chilly rooms where such interviews tend to place (at least in the movies), and as they perch primly on chairs and do their best to appear confident, they are plainly unnerved too, in particular when Keita tells the panel before them a story of the wonderful time he had with his father camping and flying kites. Following, Ryo asks Keita why he told this story, which is untrue (a means of emphasizing how little time he’s actually spent with his son over six years, being so busy at work). Keita explains he was coached, because, of course, his well-to-do-parents have hired a coach in order to effect his acceptance into the school.
This exchange between father and son will be reinforced throughout the film, the sort where Ryo is surprised to find out something about his son or his wife, or tries to control a situation after the fact, or shows discomfort or frustration at surprises. Of course, Ryo is contrasted with Yudai, a shop clerk who prefers rumpled plaid shirts and sweaters and who spends all kinds of time with his children; Ryo looks on when he plays vigorously with them in the bouncy house at the mall, then listens impatiently when Yudai advises him, “It’s worth investing the time.” Come to find out, again not surprisingly, that Ryo’s been raised by a pushy and prideful father (Isao Natsuyagi). Their stiffly formal exchanges at the father’s house show that Ryo has absorbed the notion that a successful man is wealthy and stoic, leaving the domestic sphere to his wife, who, as much as she dotes on Keita and then Ryusei too, visibly resents her husband’s apparently willful distance, as the two appear in separate spaces even in the same apartment, divided by the kitchen counter, beautifully contrasting lighting schemes or assorted door frames.
This seemingly essential difference between women and men is schematized too, as the nurturing moms embrace both their sons, metaphorically and, again and again, literally. Ryo, however, worries that Keita was never so able to play piano or keep to schedules as he imagined his son would; he frets that as the children grow older, they’ll look less and less like their non-blood parents and so raise more and more questions among other people who might judge them. As much as Ryo’s enthusiasm for bloodlines and legacies is rendered ironic for you — as you see the difficulties he has with his own father. And so the movie lurches occasionally into mentions of a reductive nature-versus-nurture debate.
It may seem trite that the adults — especially Ryo — must learn from their children. But Like Father, Like Son shows something else too, that the kids are able to live with complexities, in images that are at once subtle and evocative.