Ryota Nonomiya is a successful architect living in a tony Tokyo apartment with his beautiful wife and adorable son. On the surface, his life seems perfect. Then the Nonomiyas receive word that their son isn’t actually their son. Six-year-old Keita was switched at birth. Now the Nonomiyas must make a heart-wrenching decision: Do they keep the child they’ve raised for six years, or do they make the exchange for their “real” son?
This difficult scenario is courtesy of Like Father, Like Son, the latest film by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. The film screens at IFC Center beginning on Friday, January 17.
Kore-eda, an award-winning director known for his beautifully rendered and deliberately paced stories of the human condition, including Maborosi, After Life, Nobody Knows, and Air Doll, explores the bonds people form, blood connections, and what it means to be a father in Like Father, Like Son.
We discover bit by bit that Ryota, played by popular actor and singer Masaharu Fukuyama, who is best known for his role in the NHK historical drama Ryomaden – The Legend, achieved his success because he is a driven perfectionist. He expects the same from the people around him as well, including his wife, Midori (Machiko Ono, star of the NHK TV series Carnation), and his son, Keita (the completely cuter-than-cute Keita Ninomiya). The handsome and refined Ryota is also smugly judgmental of Keita’s birth parents, Yudai Saiki, a small-time electrician played by the multi-disciplined artist Lily Franky; and Yukari, a practical and level-headed mother of three played by Yoko Maki, who had the role of Fukuyama’s wife in Ryomaden.
“In terms of the main character Ryota and his pride, initially he proposes the idea of taking both children. He’s quite arrogant,” Kore-eda said during a group interview in late September, when he was in New York to attend the 51st New York Film Festival, at which Like Father, Like Son was an Official Selection.
“Along the way he loses his confidence,” Kore-eda said of the role he created specifically for Fukuyama. “He moves away from his wife, he’s losing his son, he eventually becomes isolated and quite defeated . . . He’s almost descending a staircase, but then we see his growth . . . It’s a journey of him exploring himself going down the stairs and eventually recovering.”
Playing a father is a new role for Fukuyama, who, in addition to the historical figure Ryoma Sakamoto, has played a university professor on TV and in films.
“I came up with the idea of the father because this is probably the furthest from anything he’s done up until now,” said Kore-eda. “Of course, I wanted to keep his good looks, but I also wanted to give him a sense of being a real character with a real life. Thinking about that, I created this elite businessman role.”
It is a role that has the audience – even those who aren’t parents – asking the question, “What would you do?”
“Family dramas have become more interesting for me,” said Kore-eda, recounting the time after filming Still Walking (2008) with actress Kirin Kiki, who also plays Midori’s mother in Like Father, Like Son. “She said, ‘Director, if you’re going to go forward and make movies about families, I’d like you to experience marriage. If you get divorced, that’s fine, but have kids so you can have the experience as a father.’ At the time those words were said to me, I didn’t have any children, but since then I’ve actually become a father, and that’s why the importance of my father’s existence really came into play for me . . . I could be a director like Yasujiro Ozu, who didn’t have a family and did things from the son’s point of view, but for me, since I do have that background in my life now, it has sort of complicated my viewpoint.”
Kore-eda had no personal baby switches to complicate his life, but he researched the film by reading about similar incidents that occurred in Japan during the 1960s. As the father of a five-year-old, Kore-eda wanted to make a film that examined the true meaning of blood connections.
The formula works in Like Father, Like Son. It’s a measured drama with not a lot of action, but with a lot of character development that’s done in a provocative and intelligent way. Kore-eda tells the story with tenderness and quiet emotion.
“There might not be car chases, but there are sort of little explosive parts within the vertical structure of the film,” said Kore-eda.
The judges at last year’s Cannes Film Festival didn’t mind the lack of car chases, as it awarded the Jury Prize to Like Father, Like Son, the first time since 1987 that a Japanese film won that category.
Steven Spielberg, who served as president of the jury at Cannes, was so impressed by the family drama that DreamWorks Studios, the company of which he is a principal partner, acquired the rights for the remake.
Kore-eda met with Spielberg last September, saying, “I felt like I was meeting a historical figure.”
It remains to be seen who will direct and play the roles of Fukuyama, Ono, Franky, and Maki in the American version, but Kore-eda said he is “waiting with high hopes to see how that will turn out as one of the audience members. But first of all, I would like to see my original film be screened right here in the United States and be successful.”
Kore-eda has that chance on January 17, when IFC Center brings Like Father, Like Son to New York.