The Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda has the talent for taking deep and irresolvable anxieties — death (“After Life”), abandonment (“Nobody Knows”), grief and guilt (“Still Walking”), and broken families (“I Wish”) — and turning them into odd, understated parables that teeter between the mawkish and the profound. If Yasujirô Ozu had been under contract with Walt Disney, he might have made films like this.
“Like Father, Like Son,” Kore-eda’s latest, offers more of the same, but with less conviction. A bittersweet musing about the nature of parenthood and about the conflict between nature and nurture, it is as banal and insightful as its title.
Two families face an excruciating crisis when they learn that their boys had been switched at birth. In true “Prince and the Pauper” style, each comes from opposite ends of the socioeconomic scale. The Nonomiyas — alpha-male Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) and his meek wife, Midori (Machiko Ono) — live in a luxurious condo, own a Lexus, and send 6-year-old, seeming scion Keita (Keita Ninomiya) to a fancy private school. Ryota rides his sweet-natured son hard, pushing him to take piano lessons and excel at school and exercise less “kindness,” which is a trait he assumes he gets from his mother. But mostly Ryota works late overachieving at his architectural firm and doesn’t have much time to spare for the boy. Nonetheless he wants Keita to be like himself: driven, accomplished, cold, and miserable.
But Ryota’s actual biological son Ryusei (Shôgen Hwang) has grown up under much different circumstances. His apparent dad, Yudai (Lily Franky), is the happy-go-lucky manager of a tacky appliance shop; he’s devoid of ambition, an unembarrassed slob, and great with his kids (Ryusei has two younger siblings). As the stereotype goes, he’s a big kid himself. Just ask his long-suffering but still-smitten wife, Yukari (Yôko Maki).
Shrewdly, Kore-eda adds depth to his premise by focusing on Ryota, the least sympathetic of the characters. At one point you might think the best solution to the dilemma would be for the two families to merge — after kicking out the miserable Ryota and keeping his money. But as portrayed by Fukuyama, Ryota seems to turn inside out in the course of his ordeal, the brittle exterior revealing a crumpled soul within, still raw from father issues of his own. His performance resonates with Kore-eda’s somber sentimentality and subtly manipulative mechanics. To illustrate character dynamics he shoots a scene from directly overhead or from far away with a precise mise-en-scène that symbolizes inner states. He shifts moods with a palette ranging from the stark whites and grays of Ryota’s world to the chaotic colors, like the daubs of a kid’s crayon drawing, of Yudai’s household. And Kore-eda knows that any scene seems a bit more melancholy with Bach’s Goldberg Variations playing on the soundtrack. To paraphrase Tolstoy, all happy families are the same, and Kore-eda’s films about unhappy families are getting to be the same, too.Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.