Film Review: "Life Father, Like Son"
By Sakura Takahashi and Nisakorn Valyasevi
LangDorm’s Japanese Hall held a movie screening last Friday of Hirokazu Koreeda’s Jury Prize winning film Soshite Chichi ni Naru (そして父になる). Despite its worldwide acclaim, there may have been something missing in translation in its English-release title Like Father, Like Son. The original Japanese title translates more closely to “becoming a father,” and this title encapsulates the essence of the film.
Koreeda’s films are known for their realism. Indeed, Like Father, Like Son portrays two very believable, lifelike families who find themselves in an extraordinary situation: they discover that their sons were secretly switched at birth. Now, the families must decide whether to trade their six-year-old sons so that they grow up with their biological parents or hold onto them and the six years of memories they share. However, according to the hospital in which the fateful switch occurred, a hundred percent of families in such situations choose to trade their children—a surprising statistic even from a country where the term “non-biological children” is an oxymoron.
The film is an exercise in contrasts. The upper-class Nonomiyas live in a “hotel-like” high-rise apartment with their only son, who is accepted into a competitive elementary school and takes piano lessons. The Saikis, on the other hand, are a family of five who live in a shabby electronics shop in the countryside. Their accents, their rundown car, and their frugality are all objects of contempt from Ryota Nonomiya (portrayed by actor and singer Masaharu Fukuyama), the “father” around whom the film centers.
However, despite Ryota’s classist and unsympathetic attitude, the contrast portrayed is not “rich versus poor.” Rather, it is “cold versus warm.” The audience is struck by the chilly imagery and sounds throughout the beginning of the film—endless, angular staircases, long, dark tunnels, ominously minimalist music. The Nonomiyas seem happy enough at first, but the discomfort created by the pervasively cold atmosphere betrays their dysfunctional nature as a family.
Although Ryota is involved in his son’s education, he is frequently absent from the home and lacks an emotional connection with his wife, his son, and his own parents. To him, “kindness is a fault in modern society.” The disjunction among the members of the Nonomiya family, in contrast to the warm closeness of the Saikis, is distinctly portrayed through the film’s beautiful cinematography. Inside the Nonomiya’s large apartment, we are only given shots of certain rooms. Aside from dinner scenes, Ryota is almost never with his son and his wife save for one piano practice scene. He is most often sitting undisturbed in his workroom, sharply in contrast to the Saikis, never alone in their small home.
While the Nonomiyas definitely have something to learn from the Saikis, the film does not draw a simple dichotomy between a good family and a bad family. Koreeda’s achievement here is to create a sense of love and connection between Ryota and his family despite the many problems they face. Ryota smiles lovingly at his son and is genuinely interested in his success even if his expectations seem too high. The greatest indication of the established bond is the sense of discomfort when the families do trade sons for a sort of “test run.” The visual of the families with switched sons feels distinctly unnatural. “Your son will grow up to look like the other father,” Ryota’s relatives tell him. Yet it becomes clearer and clearer to Ryota and to the audience who the true son of the Nonomiya family is.
In the climax of the film, Ryota makes his final decision. It arrives subtly, unaccompanied by a grand orchestral theme or dramatic visuals. Its impact instead comes from Ryota’s first display of emotional vulnerability. The audience ultimately realizes that the essence of the film is not the question of whether blood is thicker than water. Rather, it is how one man comes to terms with how he truly feels about his family, about love, about “becoming a father.”
Japanese Hall is hosting a Fall 2014 film series. Stay tuned for their next showing.
Sakura Takahashi and Nisakorn Valyasevi are sophomores at Duke University.