Susan L. Farber’s study in the New York Times of twins reared in separate households stands as one of the more interesting studies on the discussion of nature versus nurture. In large part the study places emphasis on a child’s behavior as something that is reactionary to their environment, whereupon biological traits are developed or lay dormant based on external stimulus. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father Like Son is not about twins, but rather contends with swapped children at birth. This provides a rich dramatic subtext in which Kore-eda maintains a measured presence - there’s no room for sweeping moments of dramatic excess in a picture that carefully ponders the impact of nature versus nurture. Like Father Like Son is a carefully calibrated and emotionally complex film that peers into the lives of parents looking to do what they believe is best for their children.
Receiving an unusual phone call from the hospital, a wealthy couple is advised that their child, of which they have raised for five years, was swapped at birth. White collar meets blue collar as the two families of the swapped children discuss their options: allow the boys to live with the family they've had for their life or swap, accepting the notion of blood as the ultimate measuring stick of kinship. The process is not an immediate one, as the two families interact with one another. The wealthy family, led by the patriarch Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) looks to leverage his wealth in acquiring both children - a measure that ultimately acknowledges his coldness. Ryota, who’s established from the onset as a strict father of limited compassion, reasons that the faults of the child he’s reared for the past five years is one of biological concern. He looks to his actual blood-son, now raised by a family of limited means, as being the true heir to his success and fortune.
Ryota’s gestures and business tactics are amplified when compared to the blue-collar gestures of Yudai Saiki (Lily Franky). Yudai serves as patriarch though does so not at the expense of his wife, but rather relishes in the lives of all his children (the Nonomiya’s have birthed only one child, the Saiki multiple). At first portrayed as little more than an absent-minded buffoon looking to exploit his new found relationship with the Nonomiya’s, Yudai is later uncovered as someone more concerned over the well-being of his children. The stark differences between the two fathers offer a particularly insightful look into why there’s a rift between Ryota and his child from the start. And why the subsequent push to swap children is met with strong resistance.
Kore-eda’s subtle touches service the material in so far as keeping it all so level-headed and concise. The entire concept is ripe for dramatic overtures yet Kore-eda moves eloquently throughout the process, treating all the characters with the utmost respect. He accepts the ideas and lifestyles of all his characters and exposes their flaws not as a means of pushing along narrative but to indicate the larger social concerns that are at play. The subdued flourishes of his style might indicate a disconnect behind the weightiness of its topicality (nature versus nurture), but it best reflects a writer and director’s ability to not have to touch upon clear narrative touchstones to realize compelling pieces of restrained dramatic filmmaking.