The seemingly innocuous school interview that opens writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s sublime Like Father, Like Son is actually a master class on foreshadowing, as its banal questions and calculated answers turn out to be carefully laid tripwires for the thematic concerns of the film.
Those include looking at nature vs. nurture in shaping children’s personalities; the gender roles of parents; and how the adults’ careers shape the emotional tenor of a household. It adds up to a layered, complex thesis that Kore-eda, in his artful, thoughtful style, turns into moving poetry.
Two Japanese families are ruptured after learning that their six-year-old sons were switched at birth. One family is headed by a wealthy, abrasive architect used to getting his way. The other father, a laid-back electrician, lives almost hand-to-mouth but is a teddy bear with his adoring wife and kids. The men’s personality differences manifest clearly along class lines and are at the heart of the film’s questions of what makes a parent, what constitutes a family, and how to define non-monetary success.
Too many intellectuals dismiss questions about identity as secondary or irrelevant to the politics of class. Kore-eda is smarter than that, subtly illustrating that class concerns matter precisely because of how they inflame (or engulf) the emotions of everyday life.
What makes this nearly flawless film work, though, as the two families make their way to a solution, is that it’s far from a pedantic screed. It’s charming, gently humorous, and beautifully attuned to the interior lives of children. And in the form of Keita Ninomiya, Kore-eda has a child actor so unbearably cute he’ll make your ovaries ache, even if you’re sporting testicles.