Hirokazu Koreeda’s new film, Like Father, Like Son, pretends that it will be up front about the source of its heartbreak. Koreeda is the tragedian behind 2004’s Nobody Knows, based on the real-life horror of several small children abandoned in their Tokyo apartment after their mother disappeared. This time he takes a parental perspective: Like Father opens with a couple learning that their only child was switched at birth, and is not biologically related to them.
There’s a standard modern solution to tragedy: Deny that one half of the conflict is really important. Why should mere DNA matter—why isn’t love and care enough? The Nonomiyas have raised their son Keita for six years, so he’s theirs, full stop. The other kid isn’t.
But by the movie’s end, this particular problem is not what Like Father is about.
First of all, the Japanese do not share American assumptions about the banality of the flesh. When the two sets of parents first meet, a representative of the hospital says that “One hundred percent of parents choose to ‘exchange.’” Like Father is a movie that works to persuade the audience that Keita has truly become a part of the Nonomiya family: There’s a poignant photo of the two families at the beach, in which the contrasting postures of the two little boys exactly match the families who raised them—Keita upright and calm in front of his upright parents, Ryusei Saiki playfully akimbo amid his sprawling clan.
There are also scenes in which grandmothers note that, contrary to what we might imagine to be “old-fashioned” ways and beliefs, children were adopted and fostered all the time in their day. Adoption and fostering became normal ways of family-making, in the wake of war. One grandma also makes charming, pointed use of the folk wisdom that married couples begin to look like one another over time: Love can change even the flesh itself, she suggests. Like Father feels the need to defend the family bonds formed by care and emotion, but doesn’t feel any need to defend the bonds of flesh and blood, because they’re so completely accepted and overemphasized by the movie’s primary audience.
And anyway, Like Father is not only about DNA. Slowly the movie shifts from a story about switched children to a story about clashing styles of fatherhood. It becomes the story of the humiliation of Ryota Nonomiya, a high-powered architect who eats dinner at the office, whose son has to practice piano even in the car. The true story of the movie turns out to be the anguish of a tiger dad wondering if he can change his stripes.
Ryota is not easy to love. He’s closed-off, arrogant, and judgmental. He initially wants to grab both kids and raise them himself, since he’d obviously do a better job than his rival, scruffy shopkeeper Yudai Saiki. Yudai is a “fun dad,” a knockabout guy who’s constantly eating: gnawing on lobster tail as the rest of them deal with negotiations, making sure to order extra since it’ll be on someone else’s tab. Yudai has three kids and I bet none of them had to use their printed piano mat in the car.
Like Father is a less brutal and single-minded movie than Nobody Knows. It’s more argumentative—parents who have struggled to get their kids into the very best kindergartens may feel a sting in the depiction of the Nonomiya style of helicopter parenting, the exaltation of a child’s judgment over a parent’s, and the idealization of the poorer-but-happier Saikis—and it has unfortunate gaps, like the sketchy characterizations of the mothers. But Like Father has some of the striking Koreeda trademarks: the extraordinary acting from the children; the symmetrical framing and musical pacing; and the shifts between long shots in which all the people look tiny and child’s-eye shots where all the people look huge.
In the end it doesn’t do much with the question of whether nature or nurture will win out. That’s partly because, as one character notes, the kids are just too young: They’re wholly creatures of their family environment, unformed, and many genetically linked traits (such as addiction or mental illness) simply haven’t had time to develop.
But it’s also because Koreeda is not primarily interested in having an argument about the meaning of the body, about what happens two people’s DNA intertwine to make a third person. He’s made a movie in which the baby-switching becomes almost a macguffin: an excuse for showing us just how painful change—even the good kind—can be.