Dir/scr: Hirokazu Kore-Eda. Japan. 2013. 120mins
A recurring theme in most of Kore-Eda’s films, Japanese family life, is once again at the forefront of his concerns, with the main issue here being whether paternity is a question of genes or is defined by ties gradually established between parents and their offspring in the course of the time they spend together, with mutual bonds of affection drawing them together.
Kore-Eda, who has a brilliant record working with children with films such as Nobody Knows or I Wish, both of which had some of the most amazing child performances, does it again here, with the youngsters stealing the show from the adults every chance they get.
The combination of a family melodrama Japanese audiences have always been very fond of and the presence of Masaharu Fukuyama, a hugely popular music and TV star, in the lead role, is bound to deliver a solid hit at home, though the schematic plot and insufficiently developed characters may be a serious obstacle abroad.
Ryota (Fukuyama), a young, presentable and arrogant architect on his way up, is dedicated to his work and prepared to sacrifice as much of his time as it is needed to climb up. His life appears perfectly ordained down to the last detail: a presentable wife, Midori (Machiko Ono); a six year-old, perfectly groomed and educated son named Keita; a boss that appreciates him and a spic and span flat which looks just like the lodgings offered by expensive apartment hotels.
Distant, full of his own self-importance and social standing, he is a self-made man who looks down on anyone less successful than himself, and that includes his own kin.
The perfect machinery of his life is spoiled one day when a phone call from the hospital informs Ryota and Midori that through a nurse’s error, they had been given the wrong baby six years earlier and now they have to enter the long and painful process of meeting the other family and deciding together what to do about it. The other family being a shopkeeper, Yudai (Franky Lily) who strongly believes one should never do anything today if it can be done tomorrow - or indeed the day after -and his wife, Yukari (Yoko Maki), who has had two more children after their first born, Ryusei.
The various stages the couples and their children go through are supposed to prepare them for the final exchange that will restore the biological order. But if the adults can deal with the emotional stress, for the children it is a completely different matter and as time goes by even the stiff Ryota begins to understand that parenthood cannot be reduced to gene engineering only, that it is far more complex than planning a new compound of skyscrapers, and he has to accept that imposition is not a solution and “never mind” is not an answer for an inquisitive child.
Kore-Eda claims the film is an expression of his own concern, as a young father whose child now aged five. With the same restraint and control over plot and the characters that he has always displayed, he leads the story carefully, avoiding unnecessary histrionics and managing to draw out of calm, carefully weighed reactions, much more than other directors would do by unchaining explosions of temper. But all these qualities are partially wasted on a plot that leaves too many issues unsolved. Not to mention such dramatic devices as the reason behind the switch in the hospital that are less than convincing let alone make much sense.
Fukuyama, whose role gradually grows in size to overshadow all the rest, starts rigidly but softens up towards the end when he has a couple of truly moving scenes. Kore-Eda, who has a brilliant record working with children with films such as Nobody Knows or I Wish, both of which had some of the most amazing child performances, does it again here, with the youngsters stealing the show from the adults every chance they get.
Production company: Film Inc.
International sales: Wild Bunch, www.wildbunch.biz
Producers: Kaoru Matsuzaki, Hijiri Taguchi
Executive producers: Chihiro Kameyama, Tatsuro Hatanaka, Tom Yoda, Yasushi Ogawa, Chiaki Harada, Satomi Odake
Cinematography: Mikiya Takimoto
Editor: Hirokazu Kore-Eda
Production designer: Keiko Mitsumatsu
Main cast: Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono, Yoko Maki, Franky Lily