Kore-eda returns in this Cannes Jury Prize winning film with the familiar themes of familial bonds and conflicts. Though the initial premise may sound a little melodramatic, it is after all a staple of the ‘lifetime movie’ genre (if you can call it that) and Kore-eda approaches the subject of the fallout from the discovery that one’s child was swapped at birth from a restrained and ultimately compassionate angle.
Ryota Ninomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) seems to have the perfect life. A successful architect, he has a perfect stay at home wife, a perfectly groomed little boy, Keita, and a perfectly ordered luxury high rise apartment in the city. He pushes his son hard - the poor thing’s already in cram school before he’s even in regular school and that’s alongside the hours of piano and English practice he’s expected to do. Still, the boy seems happy enough and never seems frightened or withdrawn around his somewhat austere father. However, around the time Keita is preparing to enter an exclusive primary school, a blood test reveals he is not the biological son of either his mother or his father but of another couple who’ve in turn been raising the natural son of the Ninomiyas.
The hospital seem to think the natural solution is simply to exchange the two boys so they’re back with their blood kin as if they were a misplaced umbrella or a jacket worn home in mistake but obviously whichever way you look at it it’s not such a simple matter. Both families quite naturally have a series of very conflicting emotions about the situation - the child they’ve been raising all these years is their son even if not biologically but they also feel a pull towards the natural son that they’ve never met. For Ryota, who perhaps has never felt as if he feels the proper bond with his child that a father ought to have, this terrible situation forces him to consider his own role as a father and whether blood ties can really trump a relationship built on shared memories.
In many ways Ryota is not an easy man to like. He’s cold and distant and he seems to regard his family merely as extensions of himself. You get the impression that he pushes his son so hard because he fears that the boy will shame him in some way by not living up to his father’s expectations. It’s not really that he wants to prepare his son for success in his future life so much as it would offend his vanity to have a son that he would consider to be inferior in the eyes of society. He spends all his time working and on the rare occasion he’s home barely exchanges two words with his son. He is also a dreadful snob and the fact that his natural son is being raised by a working class shopkeeping family whose happy go lucky attitude is the total opposite of his own uptight upper middle class obsession with the proper way of doing things is just beyond the pale for him.
Observing how Ryusei, his biological son, chews his straw in the same the same way as his ‘adopted’ father and has a habit of shouting ‘oh my god!’ in English it’s obvious that Ryota can’t believe a son of his would behave in such a ‘vulgar’ way. From the first time he pulls up at the Saiki’s house and utters the word ‘pathetic’ it’s clear that he finds the very existence of a family such as this very uncomfortable. Mr Saiki owns a middling electronics shop and feels no need to engage in the sort of social validation that defines Ryota’s life. The Sakai’s are an extremely happy, very loving family and though they might not have the material comforts that the Ninomiya’s value they are very certain of what is important in their lives. Ryota simply cannot understand how anyone could reject conventional, materialistic path he has chosen for this earthy, familial warmth that defines the Saikis.
The situation is, of course, impossible to resolve. Nobody seems to really be thinking about the effect on the child of ripping him away from his ‘parents’ (and in one case siblings) and home to be placed with strangers in an unfamiliar environment. The real story is Ryota’s though as he travels from emotionally crippled Victorian father to gaining an understanding what fatherhood really means. As might be expected, a great deal of Ryota’s difficulty relating to his son and to the rest of society in general directly relate to problems within his upbringing and particularly in his relationship with his own hardline father.
What Kore-eda has crafted here is quite a nuanced and compassionate examination of the relationship between a father and his son. Where another filmmaker might have fallen into the trap of ‘swapped at birth shocker!’ headlines, he’s managed to present such an emotionally fraught topic with a distant, though not dispassionate, eye which affords a degree of understanding to all those involved. It may not be one of Kore-eda’s most hard hitting films but it approaches its subject intelligently and with a degree of warmth that makes it a must see for fans of Japanese art house.