A Father Knows

Fuyama Masaharu in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Like Father, Like Son.” | FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK, INC./AMUSE INC./GAGA CORPORATION

Fuyama Masaharu in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Like Father, Like Son.” | FUJI TELEVISION NETWORK, INC./AMUSE INC./GAGA CORPORATION

BY STEVE ERICKSON | Among Japanese directors of his generation (now in their 50s), Hirokazu Kore-eda stands apart. Other than the fanciful “Air Doll,” in which an inflatable sex doll comes to life, he’s shown no interest in making genre films. Instead, he’s stuck to Japan’s lengthy tradition of family dramas in the vein of Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse. In his most famous film, “Nobody Knows,” a mother abandons her children, but Kore-eda is notably less infatuated with the dark side of life than peers like Hideo Nakata, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, or Takashi Miike. The eclectic Miike has dabbled in children’s films, as well as the gorefests that made his reputation in the West, but they have a hallucinatory edge and fondness for bad-taste humor missing from Kore-eda’s relatively placid work.

The narrative of “Like Father, Like Son,” in which two babies are switched at birth and raised in very different families, has universal appeal. It’s not a very original plot. An Israeli film with the same premise opened here a few years ago. To Kore-eda’s credit, he puts a heartfelt spin on it. Steven Spielberg headed the jury that awarded “Like Father, Like Son” a prize at Cannes last spring, and his Dreamworks production company plans a US remake. Expect it to exponentially increase the cuteness factor and potential for treacle, while ducking the bittersweet overtones of the second half of Kore-eda’s film.

Hirokazu Kore-eda tells a familiar story, imbues it with authenticity

Ryota Nonomiya (Fukuyama Masaharu) is a yuppie who believes he owes his relative wealth to hard work. As a result of this devotion to his job, he’s spent little time with his six-year-old son Keita. Then, he and his wife Midori (Ono Machiko) get a strange call from the hospital where Keita was born. They learn that a troubled nurse switched Keita and another boy, Ryusei, at birth, so the Nonomiyas get in touch with the other family, the Saikis. Yudai Saiki (Lily Franky) runs a somewhat shambling appliance store and admits he can be lazy. After meeting at a mall several times to have their children play together, the two families agree to exchange sons, which they expect to be permanent. This second switch takes place around the film’s halfway mark.

The worlds of the Nonomiya and Saiki families are set apart through visual markers. The Nonomiyas live in a high-rise apartment building in central Japan. Their neighborhood looks as unappealing as Midtown Manhattan at night. Their apartment seems cramped, and the view out the window consists of other skyscrapers and tall apartment buildings. The Saikis, on the other hand, live and work out of the same two-floor building. Its paint may be peeling, but it’s homier and seems far more attractive as a place to dwell and spend time.

“Like Father, Like Son” mounts a gentle critique of Japanese patriarchy. Ryota acts as though he should have all the rights in the world as a father, despite his lack of interest in actually spending time with his son. His job takes up almost all the time that should be spent parenting. Worse, it seems he likes it that way, but still puts up an arrogant front. He can barely do a competent job of parenting one son, but he wants two. His wife does all the real childcare in the household, while Ryota acts gruff and orders his sons — both of the children of whom he claims ownership — around. In an archetypically Japanese scene, he gives up on fixing Ryusei’s toy robot. Pressed by the boy, Ryota tells him to ask Midori to buy him a new one; the boy says he’ll get his father to fix it the next time he’s home.

In several films, Kore-eda has shown he’s one of world cinema’s best directors of child actors. He’s particularly skillful with them here. The children who play the Saiki family are completely convincing together, and the actor who plays Ryusei is splendid. The boy has a stubborn willfulness and a refusal to admit that the world doesn’t conform to his desires; one needn’t be a parent to recognize that in him.

Kore-eda works wonders with stock situations and characters, but the film isn’t fully engaging until its second half, when Ryusei finds himself in the clutches of the Nonomiyas. It’s true that the characters are a bit one-dimensional. Ryota’s uptight yuppie and Yudai’s lovable slacker are straight out of central casting, and the film’s message that families are groups of people who love each other whether or not they are connected by blood is a bit platitudinous. Still, “Like Father, Like Son” injects real humanity into a familiar scenario.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON | Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda | Sundance Selects | In Japanese with English subtitles | Opens Jan. 17 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com | Lincoln Plaza | 1886 Broadway at 62nd St. | lincolnplazacinema.com