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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: Like Father, Like Son

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (Four Stars)

Japan: Hirokazu Kore-eda,  2013.

NOTE: All the proper names in the following review, whether of filmmakers or of fictional characters, are given in American style, with the first name first and the last name last (I.E.: Akira Kurosawa or Steven Spielberg), instead of Japanese style, which, in defiance of Western logic, puts the last (family) name first and the first (given) name last (I.e. Kurosawa Akira and Spielberg Steven).  I do this because the press notes for Like Father, Like Son  have all the names in the Japanese style, and some earlier reviews of  the film have accepted this switch, perhaps bringing confusion to some writers, readers, and proofreaders.

Just remember that, in Japanese nomenclature, last is first and first is last. But, in the case of this review, all lasts are last and all firsts are first — as far as I know, as long as my primary sources (the press notes and Wikipedia) were correct. One notable exception:  the actor  who plays the film’s second father, Yudai Saiki, which is a special case that we‘ll handle later.

Wilmington Mike

 

Here is a beautiful film., whichever way you look at it — despite its seemingly sentimental cliché-promising title, Like Father, Like Son. The writer-director, Hirokazu Kore-eda (who also made Nobody Knows and, Still Walking) specializes in family drama; this is one of his most moving works. And though the film initially may seem sentimental, gradually it evolves into something else — something coolly perceptive and warmly affectionate and absolutely lovely and loving.

Suppose you have two little boys, born at nearly the same time in the same Tokyo hospital. Somebody — never mind who or why for the moment — deliberately switches the babies in their cribs before the mothers have a chance to fully see their children, or to get acquainted and bond with them. The mothers are completely fooled, as are the hospital personnel, most of the doctors and nurses. Nobody discovers the change until six years later, during a DNA test, In the meantime the two boys, one named Keita , the other named Ryusei, grow up with their families, respectively the Nonomiyas and the Saikis. They love their parents. Their parents love them. But the two households are very different.

Mr. Nonomiya, or Ryota Nonomiya, is a very successful upper middle class architect (played by Japanese pop singer/superstar and star movie actor Masaharu Fukuyama). Mr. Fukuyama is somewhat cold, remote and punctilious, unlike his warmer wife Midorino (Machiko Ono) and his demanding manner somewhat intimidates his quiet little son Keita, whom he is trying to prod into being an over-achiever, with piano lessons and prestige schools.  (The character Keita  Nonomiya is played by an actor named Keita Nonomiya, a similarity that may further bewilder proofreaders.) Mr. Fukuyama rarely smiles, even though it would seem he and his family have a lot to smile about. But not always. Keita, practicing piano mechanically, plods through Beethoven, while later, on the soundtrack, we hear Glenn Gould‘s glorious rendition of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Ah, perfection!

Mr. Saiki, or  Yudai Saiki, is an electronics and appliance store manager, who runs his shop and family in a quite unpunctilious way. Mr. Saiki is very likable and lazy, a warm, kite-flying fatherly buddy of a dad. He has two other children besides the switched boy Ryusei (Shogen Hwang) — and he likes to romp in the bathtub with them. The Saikis — along with the more assertive (than Midorino) mother of the house, Yukari (Yoko Maki) — are a loving, happy family, it seems. Mr.  Saiki looks and acts like  a grown up hippie who’s accepted life and responsibility, but still likes to rock.  He is played by a very good actor (also a  prize-winning writer) who is named either Lily Franky or Franky Lily or Riri Furanki or Masaya Nakagawa (his name at birth). Franky/Furanki/Masaya/whatever, like everyone else in the film, especially the children, plays has role wonderfully, immaculately. Perfectly.           ,

When the two sets of parents meet, Mr. Nonomiya is disturbed and concerned about appearances and the family situation and how to resolve it. He also feels that he should have guessed that Keita was not his son. Mr. Saiki is prepared to love either boy, though he wants to be father to the  one who is rightfully his, and also wants to sue the hospital and get some money out of it. After a talk, the two fathers  agree to let the two boys take each other’s place with the other boy’s longtime family (without at first telling them of the hospital’s mistake), and then eventually make the switch back to the “right“ families.

The boys accept the situation with obedience and wide-eyed curiosity. The mothers seem more sensible about it all than their husbands. Mr. Nonomiya, for example, would like to bring up both boys and feels that his money and social class and the “good life” he can offer makes that a desirable solution — an attitude that ticks off  the otherwise easier-going Saiki. Gradually, the situation evolves. The boys switch families for brief stays. The experiment yields interesting results, some involving kites. One of the boys is happy; one of them is not. Mr. Saiki is  not really mercenary, and Mr. Nonomiya is  not necessarily cold and remote –though his affluent father proves to be a classist snob who believes blood will tell. After all, look at Johann Sebastian Bach and his sons.

One thing at which the Japanese cinema has always  excelled is family drama, Maybe that feeling, that sympathetic concern, that stylization in their culture. is also part of the reason the Japanese  put family names first. The Japanese sensei or master Ozu Yasujiro  — or as we Westerners are wont to call him, Yasujiro Ozu –made the finest, most beautiful, most warmly human, the saddest (though sometimes very funny), and finally,  the most quietly heartbreaking family dramas the cinema has ever known (including I Was Born But…, The Only Son, There was a Father, Late Spring and the sublime Tokyo Story), and Kore-eda is possibly the best of all Ozu’s successors, the family poet of  our later generation.

Here, Mr. Kore-eda is examining a family dilemma and drama of great potential pain and finding in it something past pain, past happiness, past the sometime trauma and confusion and turmoil of family life, something close to the essence of familial love, which some of the characters don’t know as completely as they should, and that some of them learn — a portrait of parents and children, fathers and sons, mothers and children that opened my heart as I watched it.

It‘s the kind of film that one wishes were made more often in America, and made this well — and, in fact, Steven Spielberg , who was the President of the Cannes Film Festival jury that awarded Like Father, Like Son the Jury Prize (Spielberg called this his personal favorite film of the festival) has bought the rights to the American remake of Like Father, Like Son. I‘m not sure how I feel about that. How could the American remake possibly be better than the Japanese original? Or as good? Oh well…Thank you, Mr. Kore-eda Hirokazu. Thank you (I hope), Mr. Spielberg. Thank you.

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