Although by no means the method Hirokazu Kore-eda employs on every movie, a common strategy of the Japanese auteur is to create a self-contained, occasionally fanciful situation, then allow the setup to play out in all its manifold narrative and ethical possibilities. This approach found its most obvious formulation in his 1998 film After Life, in which a group of newly dead people were asked to choose one memory from their life which would be reenacted by a group of actors and which the person would then watch over and over for all eternity. Whatever the thematic implications of this setup, the film ultimately faltered in shifting its emphasis to critiquing a situation that could never actually exist.
Far more successful, because more plausible, is the scenario of Kore-eda’s best film, Nobody Knows, in which the director imagines a situation where a pair of children are left to fend for themselves after their mother abandons them. Falling somewhere in between the two, though leaning more toward the pointless self-critique of After Life, is the director’s latest, Like Father, Like Son. While it’s rooted in a real-world setting, and apparently based on an actual case, the film offers a situation nearly as implausible as does After Life. Finding that their child was switched at birth with a baby from a working-class family, an upper-crust couple, Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) and Midori (Machiko Ono), decides, after long deliberation, to swap the six-year-old kid, Keita (Keita Ninomaya), who they had been raising as their son, with their biological child, only to realize the inevitable folly of such an idea.
The film scores all of its thematic points early, commenting intriguingly, if ultimately rather obviously, on the demands of Japanese patriarchy. A successful architect with a go-getter attitude, Ryota shrinks from the feckless attitude of his own somewhat fey son, who he views as being more than a little bit of a disappointment. When he gets the chance to swap him for a more likely heir, it serves as a confirmation of his own sense of himself, an acknowledgement that he has actually sired someone more worthy of his lineage. Similarly, the film shows a divide among gender lines on the question of biological parentage, with the female characters suggesting the rather obvious supposition that what matters is who raises a child and not who birthed it, while the male characters cling to the supremacy of bloodlines.
With this business out of the way, though, the film unfolds among fairly ordinary lines, hitting all of the expected moments, and simply waiting out the time until Ryota realizes the inevitable folly of his decision. Like any Kore-eda work, the movie benefits from stunning, if rather sterile, cinematography, a hushed tone, by turns wry and acerbic, and the director’s now legendary ability to direct children. But while all this ensures a certain level of aesthetic accomplishment, it ultimately adds up to something less than a satisfying portrait of two families of different classes and two genders with different assumptions. As in After Life, Kore-eda has boxed himself into a scenario where the only way out is to deny the acceptability of that scenario’s parameters, after which, the film having effaced itself, there’s nothing left to do but roll the credits.