Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru)
Directed by Hirokazu Kore-Eda
Starring Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono
Japanese, 2013, 120 minutes
A Japanese couple, Ryota and Midori, is informed that the six-year-old child they have raised as their own is actually someone else’s son. Six years ago a nurse swapped two babies in their cots for reasons we will discover later. The two families involved, different in walk of life and character, start an uneasy relationship, and the parents begin a journey to discover their “real” son. But other secrets hidden in the past will force Ryota to put his whole life into question …
What makes you the child of your father? Your blood, your genetic code or the love you have raised him with? Are we really willing to accept the possibility that our child might not meet the expectations we project on him? These are just two of the many questions that this moving Japanese film raises making the most of a penny dreadful premise.
The protagonists, Ryota and Midori Nonomiya are a wealthy couple. He is a workaholic architect, she is focused on the education of their only six-year-old child, Keita. Unfortunately Keita does not show all the ambition that his father would like him to have. In the eyes of his father, but also in the eyes of the competitive Japanese society, the sweetness of Keita, who is willing to do anything to make his parents happy, looks like a flaw rather than a gift.
One day, however, the hospital where Keita was born receives a phone call and they are informed that the child they raised is not their biological son. Keita is the biological child of a much more modest family, who on the other hand raised Ryota and Midori’s child in their place.
Ryota and Midori react in two different and significant ways: to Ryota this is like the confirmation of his suspicion towards his “imperfect” child; to Midori, who knows she cannot have any more children, it’s a wound that causes her to call into question her ability to be a mother.
These contradictions explode in the encounter with their biological child and the other parents, a much poorer couple having three children and living in disarray yet animated by sincere affection.
Ryota insists on doing “what is best for the children” – gradually returning them to their biological parents. The relationship between two completely different families, the inevitable comparison between the two children (Ryota’s biological son is resourceful and vital – but perhaps he developed this skills of his thanks to the environment he grew up in, not by genetic inheritance – and is much more in line with Ryota’s expectations, yet on the other end the kid is a stranger to Midori), the sudden occurrence of a twist in regard to past events, are all steps the director displays with deep attention to the feelings of each character. This way the plot develops unpredictably and yet without feeling artificial.
The risk of melodrama is always around the corner. But the director and actors succeed in the miracle of drawing the viewer into the situation without manipulating his emotions. The point of view of the story is not always defined, yet it allows the viewer to identify himself from time to time with adults and children and to grasp the nuances of an emotional journey that touches the deepest chords of human being.
So what started out as a procedure to get his “real” son back slowly becomes to Ryota the challenge of winning back the affection of the child he had by his side. This man so seemingly incapable of giving affection (the physicality of the relationship with children is the most obvious difference between the two families) will win his fatherhood back but only when he learns who he is.
Not surprisingly, the original title of the film means more or less “And I will be his father”. The story of two children exchanged is a story which has been told both in literature and cinema in a thousand different ways and genres. Here it becomes a deep true parable of a man whose real challenge is not recognizing a child as his real son, but learning the humility to become a real parent.
Laura Cotta Ramosino is a story editor for Rai Uno, the national Italian broadcaster, and contributes to several magazines and websites about cinema and television.