Tokyo filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda is known for deft work with kids, sometimes in scenarios with little or no adult presence. But the English-language title of his latest movie, Like Father, Like Son, is a little misleading. There's no reference to a child in the Japanese title, which means "And So He Becomes a Father."
At the center of this engaging if ultimately predictable film is a man who technically became a father six years ago: Ryota Ninomiya (actor and J-pop star Masaharu Fukuyama) is an ambitious Tokyo architect who leaves most of the nurturing stuff to his wife, Midori (Machiko Ono). But he's made it clear to their son, Keita (Keita Ninomiya), that dad has big plans for him.
While quiet Keita is less than a prodigy at the piano, he's already skilled at bureaucratic gamesmanship; in the movie's opening scene, the boy impresses an elementary-school admissions officer with a tale of going camping with his father. Ryota is impressed, too, since this model father-son bonding experience never happened.
Like father, like son? Yes, but turns out it's nurture, not nature: Summoned to a meeting at the small-town hospital where Keita was born, Ryota and Midori learn that their son was switched with one born to Yukari Saiki (Yoko Maki) and her husband Yudai (Lily Franky). The other boy's name is Ryusei (Hwang Shogen), and he's the oldest of three kids who live a modest, messy life very unlike Keita's.
For the next year, the two families struggle with feelings and logistics. Unprepared to give Keita up, and shocked that his biological son is being raised in a crummy rural appliance shop, Ryota proposes taking both boys. Yudai and Yukari don't like that idea, but even when all four parents come to a decision, they may not be able to live with it.
Kore-eda often begins his movies with documentary interviews or workshops, so it seems likely that this project's genesis involved Keita Ninomiya. He's the only actor with the same name as his character.
But it's Ryota who remains the focus, which is why this film registers as one of Kore-eda's lesser efforts. The architect's trajectory is unsurprising, and not balanced by any other character's journey. Easygoing Yudai is certainly the anti-Ryota, but all he gets are a few nice moments.
Like Father, Like Son continues some of the themes of its predecessor, I Wish, in which two brothers are separated by their parents' divorce. Where that film boasts a wealth of themes and characters, though, this one is simpler and more conventional.
It's also, interestingly, the director's first fiction movie that includes no references to mortality or after-death rituals. Kore-eda is himself a father now, which may explain why his work has gotten sunnier.
As always with Kore-eda films, it helps to know a bit about Japanese culture and geography. The Saikis live in Gunma, widely regarded as the country's most boring prefecture. The Ninomiyas are among Tokyo's few high-rise residents. (Ryusei tells his parents that their apartment looks like a hotel.) But the impression that Ryota is a born aristocrat evaporates when he goes to visit his own father, who lives in one of the city's humblest neighborhoods.
Also, blood lines (and types) are taken very seriously in Japan, where adoption is rare. In that context, Ryota's evolution seems more notable. When he reaches a new understanding of fatherhood, his emotional arrival is expected — but moving nonetheless.