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Saturday, June 7, 2014

Nippon Reviews: Sochite Chichi Ni Naru (Like Father, Like Son)

Like Father, Like Son (Sochite Chichi Ni Naru): Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda.  Starring: Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono, Keita Ninomiya, Lily Franky, and Yoko Maki.  Running Time: 120 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

           How would you respond if unexpected events pulled the rug out from under everything you thought was certain in your life?  If everything you thought you knew about yourself suddenly started slipping away?  I can’t say I’ve ever been in such a position myself, but since I am no stranger to existential dread, I can hazard a guess as to what that might be like.  And what I guess is nothing pleasant, or easy. 

            This is precisely the predicament that our main characters, Ryota and Midori, find themselves in.  Via a mandatory blood test, the two learn that their son, Kyota, is not actually theirs- through some accident, their baby was switched at birth with another.  They are put in contact with the other identified parents, Yukari and Yudai, and their “actual” child, Ryusei.  Together, with the children none the wiser, the four adults must decide together whether to exchange the children or to continue on as before. 

            I will not say what decision they ultimately reach, but it is obviously not reached without a great deal of agonizing soul-searching on the part of all involved, especially Ryota.  The more overarching themes of the movie deal with the idea of familial and parental love in general, which is to be expected, but it soon becomes clear that this is a story very specifically meant for fathers.  Ryota had always raised his son to succeed, trying to teach him to never be satisfied with not being the best (even though he hasn’t even started regular school yet).  He’s not domineering, or abusive, or cold- he openly admits that he wishes his job didn’t pull him away from his wife and child so often.  On the other hand, though, he also clearly never tries to get any time off, even when his boss says he should, because to him, that’s just what fathers do- they work, and push their children hard.  And prior to learning that Kyota is not his by blood, he laments to Midori that their son is just “too nice” to survive in the work world. 

            Because of this, when the news arrives, his first major struggle is to figure out what, exactly, his reaction is.  Is he genuinely upset and angry, or is he also feeling some sense of relief?  He doesn’t seem to know, so, of course, neither do we.  The major conceit of the story is that he and the other father, Yukari, are polar opposites.  Ryota is a self-serious, educated engineer at a prestigious firm, living in a high-end, clean apartment, and raising his son on the basic tenets of tough love.  Yukari is an uneducated mechanic running a household goods store, making glib jokes without end; his family of five is squeezed into a crowded and messy apartment over the shop; he bathes with his children and gleefully joins them in the ball pit in shopping mall play centers.  Their exchanges are second only to those between Ryota and his wife and son, a meditation on contrasting opposites.

            Like Father, Like Son is a deeply affecting film.  At the viewing I attended there were far fewer dry pairs of eyes post-credits than when the lights first dimmed.  I believe it’s affecting precisely because of what it doesn’t do, rather than what it does do; there is no shouting, for one; the situation these people are in is incredible enough that no artificial melodrama is required.  The soundtrack, a compilation of classical piano pieces, is reserved, solemn, almost hushed; there are no weeping strings to be heard.  There are clear lessons to be learned, but no preaching.  A great many questions are raised, or hinted at, and most are left unanswered, lingering in the air with the dust of the projector screen. 

            The atmosphere of the movie is captured perfectly in one, brief scene, when Midori comes across a painted clay disc of some sort with Kyota’s handprint in it.  It’s a relic of a long-forgotten art class, the sort of thing most parents toss into the trash years before the child starts high school.  Here, though, for a brief moment, it’s far, far more than just a pottery project- as she silently contemplates it, sliding her fingers into the smooth, hardened grooves, it seems to represent everything about their family up to that point in time, as if simply holding it can make things be just the way they were.  The scene, like the movie, lingers on, long after it’s over.   

Next film: The Horses of Fukushima

-Noah Franc 

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