Successful businessman Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama) is obsessed with status and wealth and wants the same for his wife (Machiko Ono) and young son Keita (Keita Ninomiya). When he discovers that Keita is not his biological son due to a mixup at the hospital, he must face the life changing decision whether to father his biological son or the boy he helped raise.
Director Hirokazu Kore-eda returns to the family drama in this tender and moving picture concerning nature vs. nurture, parental roles, and the social mores of class differences. Featuring delicate direction and some very terrific performances, Kore-eda crafts one of his best yet, in which he also takes up writing and editing duties as well. The family drama sees an excellent evolution with a situation, once common in days past, but with the modern worries and issues of today compounding reaction with motivation.
Masaharu Fukuhara leads with his performance as Ryota, the ‘elite’ husband who has more interest in providing culture to his son than doing typical father-son activities. He’s more than a little straightforward which will grate upon you, it most certainly did with me, but he turns in a performance showcasing great growth and maturation during the film. Michiko Ono is terrific as the guilt-ridden wife of Ryota who feels it was her responsibility as a mother to know her child right away. Her tenderness and kindness makes her immensely sympathetic and she has some truly heartbreaking moments on screen. Yoko Maki and Frankie Lily are good as the biological working class parents with Maki standing out in her warm but no nonsense portrayal. Compassionate and hardworking, she makes the best of the tragic situation which has befallen them all. Let’s not forget the children as well, they may be among the most adorable kids ever seen in Japanese drama with particular notice to the two children at the heart of the film; Keita Ninomiya and Shogen Hwang. They’re adolescence and innocence is a stark contrast with the moodiness of the adults and their acceptance but lack of understanding is very realistic. The instances where they ask questions to the adults about their situation can truly be heartrending; their naivety cutting to the heart of what it means to be a family.
Delicately shot, the film lends itself to a softness that will be somewhat new to viewers of his other work, but one that helps contrast the two very different worlds of both families as each copes and adjusts to a virtual stranger coming into their lives. Music is good with excellent use of Goldberg Variation utilized for many moments. It’s a moving series of music which fits in well with the themes and quieter instances.
Kore-eda scores another modern masterpiece with this film which features some very human and surprising performances. Deeply affecting and engaging, I was unprepared for the wealth of emotions which the film would put me through. While still a relatively new talent, I would put this work up there with the likes of Ozu in terms of family drama. That’s a lofty claim to be sure, but one that a single viewing will easily confirm. Must see.
You may enjoy this film if you liked: Ikiru, Still Walking, and/or Departures