Hirokazu Koreeda's Like Father, Like Son observes several months in the lives of two radically different Japanese families, initially unacquainted with one another, but who are mutually thrust into a bizarre, devastating situation that courts only sticky solutions. Masaharu Fukuyama and Machiko Ono star, respectively, as Ryomo and Midori Nonomiya, a married couple raising their only child, six-year-old son Keita (Keita Ninomiya), in an upscale apartment. Ryomo is a driven businessman from a conservative Japanese family, Midori a quiet, affectionate, stay-at-home mother. They love their little boy, although Ryomo puts undue pressure on Keita to succeed, despite the child's still-tender age. Then shattering news threatens to tear the household to pieces: The country hospital where Midori delivered Keita phones the couple and informs them that its employees may have erred six years prior by accidentally confusing the birth parentage of Keita with that of another infant. DNA tests confirm the parents' gravest fears: The child they've come to know and love isn't their biological offspring, but the son of Yukari and Yudai Saiki (Yôko Maki and Rirî Furankî, respectively), a working-class couple in a nearby town; they gave birth in the same hospital at the same time and have blindly spent years raising the Nonomiyas' little boy, named Ryusei (Shôgen Hwang), along with their other children. The families meet and consider taking action against the hospital, but such recourse is tangential to the most critical question: how to adjust their interfamilial behavior. Should the couples go on as before, pretending -- for the sake of the sons they have raised -- that nothing has shifted? Or should they attempt to swap children and begin again from ground zero? And if they choose the latter option, what psychological and emotional ramifications will accompany that decision for parents and sons?
This dilemma will likely seem more alien to Western audiences than it will to the average Japanese person. To many viewers in North America and Europe, where adoption and surrogate parentage are run-of-the-mill, retaining custody of the children and treating them as one's own would be the obvious, de facto response to such a crisis. But beneath its veneer of contemporaneity, much of Japanese society still rests on a foundation of ancient, unyielding strictures woven around the concept of blood lineage. To more traditional adults, such as Ryomo, the notion of raising another family's offspring isn't simply inconceivable, but reprehensible, even sacrilegious -- making the news that arrives from the hospital not just upsetting, but a grave personal assault. Koreeda's most commendable achievement in this picture involves keeping these indigenous distinctions, these intangible limitations that hang loosely in the air, fully visible throughout the drama. Whereas other Asian imports, such as Lee Chang-dong's drama Poetry, risked indecipherability, Like Father never does. Here, when one of the characters conducts him or herself in a way that seems foreign in the West, we understand the origin of the behavior.
The saga is inimitably Japanese in another peculiar but magnificent respect: It feels alinear. In the place of a traditional Hollywood narrative with its A-B-C progression and credibility-straining, rote denouement, Koreeda gives us an intentionally nebulous meditation that drifts languorously through its characters' lives, swimming in behavioral observations that float in and out of frame. Each insight, in turn, adds a piece to a giant mosaic of futility -- though we can articulate exactly how and why each psychological response transpires, we can't even begin to propose an answer to the central crisis at hand -- which feels wholly appropriate.
As in his prior masterpiece, 2008's Still Walking, Koreeda has a poet's eye for human nuance. There are two sequences in this picture as masterfully observed as anything he's ever done -- each of which uses a motif of still photography reminiscent of Edward Yang's Yi Yi. One devastating scene from late in the film has Ryomo reviewing, for the first time, the candid snapshots that Keita has taken on the family's digital camera, and by extension, discovering a part of himself that he never knew existed. Another has the two families impulsively posing together for a group picture; in the blocking of the image, we can see the differences not merely between the clans -- one rigid and ascetic, one loose, emotionally free, and unrestricted -- but between traditional and more modern Japanese conceptions of family.
In those two scenes lies the real message of the film. They illustrate the fact that -- although the writer/director narrows his focus to two families caught up in a devastating plight -- this personal saga also provides a window into a broad, sweeping, and positive social transformation impacting the entire country, one that is remaking Japanese perceptions about how family is defined. In this sense, the movie bears thematic comparison (and some resemblance) to Patrick Wang's 2010 LGBT drama In the Family. That was a fitfully well-made but overrated picture; it had its heart in the right place and began admirably, but descended into cornball, movie-of-the-week tripe. Like Father is, in some respects, the film that Family should have been -- unlike Wang, Koreeda embraces ambiguity and uncertainty, and doesn't feel pressured to force his characters and situations into predetermined, clichéd molds.
This is a profound and remarkable work, and like Still Walking, it reasserts Koreeda's place among the ranks of the world's greatest living directors -- vis-à-vis Kiarostami, Saura, Leth, Tarr, Weerasethakul, Sokurov, de Oliveira, and others. He is an international treasure, and Like Father provides ample evidence of that fact.