Wednesday, November 20, 2013

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON, a film by Hirokazu Kore-eda

(Note: I do not here give away the film's resolution, but I do give away a couple of pivotal beats of the film. The very spoiler sensitive may want to see the film first, before reading.)

In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s newest film, Like Father, Like Son, a group of three - a man, a woman, and a boy - walk down a hospital corridor moving towards a sunlit window, hands joined, the boy in the middle, framed by the adults. The boy skips, periodically, dances a step, and the man and the woman lift him together: a walking, dancing game made for three, where the middle person must be smallest, where the two on the outside must be stronger, where the two on the outside must lift in unison for the middle small one to leave the ground.  Any person the wrong size or in a different order, any relational change in this simple little game, and the game won’t work. I know this because I walked between my parents when I was small and they were big, and I begged them to lift me, together to the sky, and as they did, I thrilled to the leap from the earth, knowing their big, strong hands and arms would keep me from jerking about or falling back down too fast.  And I know this, too, because my own children have wanted this same game from me and my husband, to walk between us holding our hands and playing this leaping lifting dance.  This is a game that parents do with their children. It speaks of love, trust, joy, security, freedom. It is a family game. 

This group - this man, woman, and child - is framed for us, walking down this corridor, as such as a family. The action and the framing say, family. One might take a still from this sequence and hang it on a wall with the other family photos. No one seeing this photo would question that the frame has captured parents and their child. Happy parents and a happy child. But in the moment of this particular frame, the film’s narrative is not offering us a statement of fact. The framing, instead, is an interrogation, a question. Are these three, in fact, family?

At the end of the hospital corridor is an answer to that question, one written in biology, in blood. It is one that denies the family portrait given us in the corridor.

The blood’s DNA reads, “File #1 and File #2 are not related to File #3.”

“That is our conclusion,” the hospital authorities tell File #1, Ryota, the man who was father, and File #2, Midori, the woman who was mother. And File #3, the boy who was son, Keita, is suddenly a stranger. Keita is not their son; their son lives with another family, who there, too, DNA says, is a son who is not a son, whatever the family portraits on the walls might say.

In these cases, Ryota and Midori are told, 100% of the families choose to exchange. A mistake has been made that needs correction. The boys do not belong, do not share blood with those with whom they live, so they must be exchanged.

From the scientific, biological point of view, things are that simple.

Families, however, those gatherings of people within the complex human drama are not so simple, and Hirokazu Kore-eda is a storyteller who, like the great Yasujiro Ozu before him, gently explores and quietly reveals the messy tenderness, the raw heartbreak, the love, the anger, the confusion at the center of every group of people we call family. Through his films - films like Nobody Knows, Still Walking, and I Wish - Kore-eda asks, what makes a family? Who are its members, and how do we know? What kind of agency or power does each member have? What are the bonds that tie the family members? How far can those bonds be strained, if disruptions, external or internal, threaten?

Like Kore-eda’s previous films, Like Father, Like Son builds its characters and its story by slow degrees and delicate nuance. We become so immersed in the lives and narrative that Kore-eda’s questions arise organically, and the questions about family take on emotional power and urgency because we are so intimately connected with this particular family, these individual characters. We desperately want to know, does Keita belong to this man and this woman, Ryota and Midori? How can he belong to them? How can he not belong to them?

When Midori receives the devastating news from the scientific authorities, she is baffled and burdened by what she feels was her blindness, ““Why didn’t I see it? I’m his mother.” And indeed, that is a key question: shouldn’t we be able to recognize those of our own blood? Shouldn’t it be easy? Obvious? But it isn’t, not to Midori, and her mother’s heart yearns towards the boy whom she’s regarded as son; she cannot really believe that he isn’t her son, and her confused question, “Why didn’t I see it?” is not merely an intellectual dissonance but a deep heartbreak.

Ryota is a contrast to Midori, a very different personality. Early in the film, he describes Keita, as “kind,” a gentle person “like his mother,” who doesn’t mind losing; he has a softness, born of emotion, that, Ryota admits, bothers him a little. Ryota’s emotions are not things he admits nor we see easily, and his heartbreak over the news of his son is less clear. Ryota is angry; he wants to know how such a terrible thing could happen – this thing that he regards as an affront to him and all his plans for his ordered, controlled life. He works every day of the week and has risen in the ranks of his company; his motto, revealed when Midori suggests Keita take a day off from piano practicing - since Keita has just been studying hard, at 6 years old, for his entrance exams and has passed - is “If you take one day off, it takes three to catch up.” Keita must not take a day off from study or from piano because Ryota cannot give himself a day off; relaxation is not the key to the success of his universe. And so Ryota pushes himself, his son, his wife, and they live an orderly, tidy life in their home, a place Midori’s mother likens to “a hotel.”

Such is the nuance of Kore-eda’s story-building though, that we do not see Ryota as a monster. Whatever his demands of himself and his son, whatever his strictness, or his stifling demands for cold tidiness, his interaction with Keita is suffused with tenderness. It is, perhaps, a watchful tenderness, a watching whether Keita will fit the mold Ryota has set out for him, but it is a tenderness nevertheless, and when Keita sits down to practice the piano at the end of his long day of exams, Ryota watches him for a moment, and then joins him, sitting close to him and playing with Keita a simple duet. And Midori watches with quiet delight from the kitchen, chopping her dinner vegetables in unconscious time with their music. Surely, whatever Ryota’s firm control and strivings towards his notion of success, this is a happy family whose members love one another.
Still, tenderness within the controlled life or not, the news that Keita is not his son is a violent disruption in Ryota’s notion of family and of the path Ryota had planned for his life. As the family leaves the hospital, the two adults stricken by the news,  the three – Ryota, Midori, and Keita - are framed again, as they were in the hospital corridor in family portrait, this time waiting at an intersection. But the neat framing of a family portrait is dashed away: interrupted by a train, swiftly rumbling by, cutting off our vision of them. They are not what they once were, what Ryota assumed them to be, what he planned for them to be. 

And this disruption of the family portrait, its notions of itself, this break in direct forward movement is further mirrored for us not only by the obfuscating train but also, beautifully, by immediately subsequent lingering shots of travel – a vehicle, we don’t know whose, moving swiftly through dark highway tunnels, and then, another vehicle moving in circles around and around a track. The outlet to the tunnel never comes, and there is no end of the circling track. In one moment, the three members of a family were walking happily down a corridor towards the lighted window of the hospital; in another moment the three are struck through by a passing train and we are travelling with them in tunnels and circles.  

The journey of the film, then, we might say centers on a man who thought he was a driver of an expensive car he’d sacrificed to earn, a man who thought he was moving forward in a path he’d chosen, with a family he was proudly caring for and shaping. And that man’s world is derailed: he no longer knows with whom he’s driving nor to where he’s driving. And for Ryota, this situation is impossible. He must know who he is and what he’s doing – any lack of definition, any emotional messiness is intolerable to him. So he goes about working to fit things back into their tidy definitions.

But the story is such that at every turn, control and definition continue, more and more, to escape his ever slipping grasp.

His control is disrupted in the moments when he first meets the family who has raised his blood-son as their own, and he reacts to these people who are not like himself in a frozen, polite stillness. They are a working class family, an open, friendly, warm, rough and tumble sort of family, where the father, Yudai, works as an electrician from home, stopping his work happily and frequently, perhaps to help a child fix a toy or to chat with a neighbor; it is a family where a childhood scrape, a bump or a bruise, is nothing to worry about, where the father joins heartily into the play of his children, mussing his hair and ruffling his clothes and not caring one jot. Whether he’s even aware of his undignified, untidy appearance is doubtful. When Ryota, Midori, and Keita meet the other family at a mall food court and playground, Ryota looks on in a kind of horror as his blood son, Ruyei, inelegantly chews at his soda straw and then leaves it, mangled, behind him as he runs off to play.  Ryota sees, later, that Yudai chews at his straw in the same way, also leaving it mangled. Like father, like son.

Ryota’s response to this horror – his blood son imitating, so crassly, the man who is not his real father - is to work to fix it; a plan begins to form in his mind that he and Midori should take both boys, since, clearly, his tidy, more moneyed life is best.

But Ryota’s notions of class are to be disrupted as much as his sense of control, and of family and fatherhood. Yudai’s family is revealed to Ryota to be something Ryota might admire rather than despise. For Ryota, working his son hard and working himself hard in order to make enough money and opportunity for his family, has been his idea of good parenting; he scorns the genial tumble play Yudai offers his children and insists, by contrast for example, that his son should bathe alone, “to learn independence,” rather than bathing in the traditional, communal family bath style, as Yudai and his family do. Yudai is unabashed by Ryota’s chilliness, however, and his motto, we learn, is “Put off tomorrow whatever you can,” and he gives advice to Ryota about fatherhood, chastising him for working away from home too much: “For children, it’s more about time. Being a father is the most important job in the world.”  Through Yudai, this new family, Ryota begins, however reluctantly, to see another approach to life.

And when Ryota suddenly, at one point, proposes to Yudai that he and Midori take both boys, we see that, in the aftermath, he is as ashamed of himself, as the others are for him. Here, Ryota is not at a point where he has relinquished all control, but he is beginning to realize his way of fatherhood is not the only way, and even while the very nature of the relationship of Keita to himself has been thrown into question, he is also beginning to question who he has been as a father.

Whatever Ryota’s growing sense of the complexity of a parent’s relationship to his child, however, both families continue to move, as if caught in an unrelenting force, towards what the hospital had told them everyone does in these cases, 100% of the time: an exchange of the boys, each blood-son to be with his blood-parents. The mistake corrected.

Even as this movement towards apparent correction reaches its peak though, the film continues to probe the rightness of that correction. The families meet together one last time for the moment of exchange, and as families do - commemorating what they deem important moments with their cameras – they decide they will take a group photo. Each father carefully places his camera on a rock: two cameras - one camera large and expensive, the other camera small and modest - each representing their respective families. Then, through the gaze of the two cameras, we look at this group of people and wonder for a moment, how will they group themselves? What will the framing of this shot be? But the question on the tenterhooks of our minds is not one the families themselves seem to think to ask at all, though they have been working with such momentum, to re-frame themselves, to learn to assert to themselves and each other, “now Keita belongs to Yudai and Yukari,” and “now Ruyei belongs to Ryota and Midori.” They simply separate, without thought, into the groupings organic to their emotional sense of identity: Keita with those he’s called parents, Ryota and Midori; and Ruyei with those he’s called parents, Yudai and Yukari. Snap. Shot. And as Koreeda has been doing throughout the film, this photo framed for us in the context of the film, asks us a question: how is a family a family? Are these people, divided into two groups, each a family? How can they be if they about change their groupings?

The instinctual gravitations of the members towards those other members most familiar to them tell us something that those in the photo do not realize, perhaps, for themselves, just how much an emotional bond has, a bond over those bonds of blood and DNA and over the decisions of that adults about who belongs to whom.  

I will not reveal the film’s ending, for to disclose it would break its slow, building power, but I must describe a pivotal moment, later in the film, in which Ryota finally understands something about the complex nature of a familial relationship, something that cannot be reduced to blood and his own decision. Ryota, now at home, idly takes up his camera and flicks through the images it stores, images he himself primarily captured, images cataloging his family unit, Keita, Midori, Keita and Midori. But he is startled to find on the camera images he did not take, framings he did not construct. There are images of himself, asleep.  In these he is far from any control of the kind of representation of himself he might choose. And this sudden exposure of the way someone else sees him – something we saw in the photo of the two families together but he did not see - disrupts his own narration of his world, and it thrusts upon him with irresistible power a thing that he has been resisting, that is, another perspective, an alternative understanding of the world, of himself, and of Keita.

John Berger says in his television series and later book, of the same name, Ways of Seeing,
Every image embodies a way of seeing. Even a photograph. For photographs are not, as is often assumed, a mechanical record. Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware, however slightly, of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights. This is true even in the most casual family snapshot. The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject.
 And here, in the moment of seeing Keita’s framing of his world, his way of seeing, Ryota sees Keita’s choice of subject: himself, Keita’s sleeping father. And he understands, finally, Keita’s bond to himself, and in that knowledge he finally sees in himself something he could not before, the thing that grew and became real, a thing more deeply in his heart than his very blood, a thing that happened without his conscious choice or control. In fact, a family relationship.

It is true, perhaps, that as the boys grow older, each will physically resemble more and more, their blood parents, but what that means for the definition of family is less sure, much less sure than the authoritative decision of the hospital authorities about which boy belonged to whom, for we might say that often, in the acting is the being. The boys were brought to homes, and the adults acted as their parents, became their parents. And perhaps the boys, in their newly exchanged homes, acting like sons, being treated like sons, learning to call the unfamiliar houses homes, will begin to be the sons of those whom their blood tells them they are. Indeed, we glimpse them as they learn, in their new homes, to receive and give hugs, to begin to trust those of this foreign environment.

Transplants are possible perhaps. Transplanted cicadas, for example, we learn from the film, as Ryota travels for work to a forest project, can adapt, regard a new place as home. But they do not treat a place as home until they have been in that place for 15 years; the process of belonging is a slow one.  And once rooted, the cicadas remain, live, grow, reproduce in what has been, for 15 years, home. They are attached, firmly, to that place.

The boys were, originally, transplants, and they are asked to be transplanted again, back to a time from before they can remember.

And we might ask, can any collection of individuals – individuals framed by context, by narrative, by photographs, as “family” - be anything more than a collection of wandering transplants? Just how deep do transplanted roots go?

Susan Sontag, in her classic work, On Photography, is cynical about the nature of family photographs, and by extension, family; those photographs, she implies, create a narrative and connectedness the family, insecure in its own identity, desires but may not actually participate in:
Through photographs, each family constructs a portrait-chronicle of itself – a portable kit of images that bears witness to its connectedness. . . . Photography becomes a rite of family life just when, in the industrializing countries of Europe and American, the very institution of the family starts undergoing radical surgery. As that claustrophobic unit, the nuclear family, was being carved out of a much larger family aggregate, photography came along to memorialize, to restate symbolically, the imperiled continuity and vanishing extendedness of family life.  
The photos and framings of family in Koreeda’s film are not so cynical, however. The framings do interrogate the assumptions about family, about connectedness, about a family’s narrative of itself, but the interrogation is gentle and nuanced and does not simply declare that a family photo, a framing of a family, with its implied narrative and implications of connection, is a deluded fiction. Those framings may be, in some sense a fiction – as this film shows us, what is framed as “family” is denied by the cold fact of blood -  but a fiction participated in long enough may become more than fiction. And more than being a sad fabrication of a desire that does not exist, as Sontag suggests, a photo in this film may instead reveal an emotional truth, a truth the photographer, one like little Keita, cannot hide.

In the hands of our guide, Hirokazu Kore-eda, framings of family and family photos take part in a moving, truthful narrative about human connection, and the truths Kore-eda offers in this film will long remain with me, as indeed they must, as I look around at this place I call home, with these three girls I call daughters, and this man I call husband, and as photos I’ve taken and photos my children have taken - often crazily framed, wonderfully unflattering photos - run in random sequence across my computer screen. I do not know how, exactly, we came to be family.  And I remember wondering if the strange little red, scrunchy-faced thing I brought home from the hospital, after giving birth for the first time 12 years ago, would ever feel like my own, not a transplant from some foreign place. But the truth is, once strangers and transplants or not, we are a family, and cicada-like, we are rooted and entwined with one another.

And I think, on our next family walk, we’ll see if our youngest daughter is not yet too old to be lifted high to the sky, between my husband and me, as we move along together.