By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Arts & Entertainment Editor
If there’s one cinematic crime Hirokazu Koreeda is not guilty of committing, it’s the sin of hitting an audience over the head with manipulative dramatics.
“Tragedy is easy to emphasize in movies,” said the acclaimed Japanese director, who is often known by a hyphenated version of his surname, Kore-eda. The native of Tokyo was in Los Angeles in November, to discuss his latest film, “Soshite Chichi ni Naru,” to be released under its English title, “Like Father, Like Son,” on Jan. 24 here in L.A.
Koreeda has built a fine reputation with movies that tackle intricately complex emotions and situations, yet he treats them with a collected, thoughtful touch. His “I Wish” from 2011 examined the value of wishes, even those that may very well be impossible. The 2004 feature “Nobody Knows” was a masterful telling of the true-to-life events of children abandoned and left to fend for themselves in the heart of a big city.
“Like Father, Like Son,” again finds children a focal point of the plot, but this time around, the weight of the situation falls squarely on the shoulders of their parents. Ryota (played with relative ease by Japanese pop star Masaharu Fukuyama) is a driven and successful urban architect who has never met a challenge he can’t negotiate. That is, until, he and his wife, Midori (Michiko Ono), receive a call from the hospital where their bright, articulate, six-year-old son was born.
It seems a rogue nurse switched a couple of babies at birth, and their “real” son has been living in a small farming community, as part of a far less well-heeled family whose earthy, unrefined patriarch (best-selling author Lily Franky) operates an appliance repair business out of their home.
The couple is forced to confront the fact that they have been raising a child who is not theirs … biologically. What follows is an often tense – but never overly melodramatic – examination of the very definition of family.
“I wanted there to be tension in the film, but I didn’t want to emphasize any tragedy,” Koreeda explained in the Rafu interview. “For example, the child could ask his mother when they had to part, ‘Why do I have to go?’ and we could focus on the mother saying, ‘I love you too.’ There, you would have all the elements for the audience to cry, because you have a family that’s being torn apart through no fault of their own. I prefer to look at small moments of daily life, to things that may be banal and ordinary.”
He continued, “For instance, there is a scene in which one mother is drying a boy’s hair after a bath, something that she and the child have done hundreds of times, yet the audience knows and the mother knows that this is not something that’s going to happen again between the two of them. It had been so ordinary, but it’s about to be taken away. The child doesn’t realize it, and that’s the kind of thing that makes me cry, those precious moments that seem so fragile when something happens to them. Those are the sorts of things I wanted to build the film on. Not the big, dramatic moments, but rather the small things we might not notice.”
Himself a father of a young daughter, Koreeda said he often wondered at what point a man with a child actually becomes a father, beyond the physical definition. Asked if it’s the shared blood or the time spent together that holds more importance, he chuckled, “I have no idea! That’s an interesting subject, but I don’t have an exact answer.”
At least one of Koreeda’s celebrated trademarks continues in “Like Father, Like Son”— the seamless performance he is afforded by his child actors. The director said he is fortunate to be presented with such talented kids, and they usually required very little instruction.
“It’s the casting, really,” he explained. “They listen to my words, but they are so natural, all I have to do is set up a situation and they behave without looking like they have to put much effort into it.”
At one point on the film, a confused and exasperated Ryota asks, “I’ve worked hard to do my best. Why is this happening?”
Koreeda said he doesn’t view the strained father as a “victim.”
“He’s a character who has come across many different obstacles and managed to overcome them all,” he said. “I don’t think he would see himself as a victim so much as see this situation as unfair. He’s confident that he can overcome this in his own way.”
After winning the Jury Prize at Cannes last year, “Like Father, Like Son” is said to have caught the eye of Steven Spielberg, are talks are in the works to produce an American version.
After a brief, Oscar-qualifying run in November, the film opens this week in New York and begins locally today, at Laemmle’s Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles and Laemmle’s Playhouse in Pasadena, with more theaters to follow.
Koreeda said the reaction from Western audiences thus far has been very gratifying.
“I’ve been pleased to find American audiences laughing, crying and applauding in all the right places. I don’t know exactly why, but I’m very grateful for it.”