The Only Sons, by Scott Nye
Hirokazu Koreeda has been called a modern Ozu, and it’s easy to see why – dealing with large, disparate families, young children, and slow-paced observational scenes, he lets the emotion gradually culminate rather then ramp it radically up and down. Similarly, his films, when stacked against one another, never seem vastly better or worse than one another, but operate along a continuum that may ebb and flow here or there. It is not to diminish the achievements of his most recent film, Like Father Like Son, when I say it doesn’t quite have the same collective power of Still Walking or I Wish, just that the many deeply moving scenes don’t end up building as effectively as he moves nearer and nearer towards his inevitable conclusion.
Ryota (Fukuyama Masaharu), a professional man in every sense of the word, and his wife Midori (Ono Machiko) have been happily raising their son for the past six years, until they get a call from the hospital in which he was born. There was a mix-up. Their son was actually given to another, poorer family, and vice-versa. In these situations, the hospital explains, the couples usually switch back and call it a day. They test the waters, and decide to proceed. For Ryota, this is a second chance – he’s been disappointed in his son’s development, so surely his biological son would display more of his pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps determination. Perhaps he would have, but nurture goes a long way and all.
But rather than meditate only on the easy nature-versus-nurture theme, Koreeda uses his premise instead to dig into Ryota; his prejudices, his assumptions, his cold detachment from the emotion of family life are far more an issue here than anything else. He’s called out for being old-fashioned – why wouldn’t his son be the boy he had been raising all along? – but steadfastly invokes the importance of legacy. When they first meet the other family, they are late, disheveled, and a little impolite; the father runs a ramshackle electronics store. Perhaps Ryota and Midori should just raise both children, he suggests.
This conflict is so potent in the first two-thirds of the film, in which the other family comes to meet many of Ryota’s prejudices, but that hardly excuses his treatment of them. It’s a careful, dramatic balance that favors nobody while making you feel for everybody. It’s easy enough to say, “love the son you’re with,” but another to realize what a massive step it is for many to decide to adopt, and the massive reversal required to realize you’re more or less forced into such a position. The numerous moments in which we see Ryota quietly question the validity of his family life are as wrought with tension as any thriller, and so heartbreaking because we recognize that, with such a business-first mindset comes a one-track mind that cannot possibly imagine things not working out for the best for him and his family. We needn’t agree with it to empathize with it.
And yet, this proves not enough for Koreeda, who eventually hammers away at common wisdom that the most loving fathers are the most attentive, with little regard for the compromises one must make to build a certain level of security and, hopefully, prosperity along the way. While he builds his films with quiet realizations and reflective uncertainty, his finale would barely be fitting in the most outlandish of melodramas. It doesn’t totally undermine the melancholy he has mined, but it does leave a discordant note in one’s ear.