Hirokazu Koreeda’s latest film can be summarised simply: beautifully shot, a little bit implausible, but emotionally interesting. Maybe there is something in this brief description that echoes its theme – the nature of paternal love – the seemingly under-explored counterpoint to the more familiar study of maternal love in visual culture.
Paternal love, as I understand it from my admittedly Eurocentric point of view (thank you Freud), hovers around the nature of the “Oedipal Triangle” – that is, how one of the father’s main jobs is to ”get in the way” of the direct and undisturbed love relation between child and mother. Hence, paternal love, at least for psychoanalysis, is often concerned with creating distance by getting in the way of symbiotic attachment. Distance, intimacy, and connection are all themes in this film in which two families find that six years ago their sons had been switched at birth, and, by way of rather dubious advice from their already faulty hospital, agree to an “exchange.”
The news of the switch (by way of an unrelated blood test) reverberates around the two families in a variety of ways stirring up issues of class, achievement, connection, intimacy, and the question of what makes a family: blood or bond? Some of these stirrings seem quite cliché – for example, how Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) the uptight middle class father is contrasted to the opportunistic but emotionally accessible working class variety (Riri Furanki). The mothers play archetypally too: better able to get along with each other, less competitive than their husbands, more straightforward relationships to their children and Midori (Machika Ono), the middle class mother, playing the passive role to the (bad) decision-making husband.
I know little of Japanese culture, but these clichés seem transcendent, and frustratingly reduce the emotional complexity of the film. Further, the ways in which the mix-up and exchange are handled seem to be completely implausible. Would the staff at the hospital really suggest an “exchange” so lacking in psychological sensitivity? This, to me, was the most difficult thing to accept.
Putting these issues aside, Like Father Like Son does offer the opportunity to explore that relatively undiscovered filmic relationship between father and son to great effect. While it tends to implicitly follow the emotional life (and ultimate emotional growth) of Ryota, the middle class dad, perhaps the real star of the film is the tiny Keita (Keita Ninomiya). It is his tiny face that so captures the emotional experience of being the one who can’t possibly understand, yet clearly suffers the most from the bumbling bureaucratic failures and familial responses in containing this tragic family trauma.
And this is where the film redeems itself, through its cinematic journey by way of tragedy, into the interior of family life and into the hearts of men.
Like Father, Like Son is out on DVD 5th May 2014.