The English and Japanese titles of Hirokazu Koreeda’s dual-family drama “Soshite Chichi ni Naru (Like Father, Like Son)” are quite different in meaning, but both express something important about this extraordinary film, winner of the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

The English title is one of those commonplaces that rebellious adolescent sons are inclined (programmed?) to reject, but once they have sons themselves, start to see as plain truth.

The Japanese title, which literally translates as “Then to Become a Father,” hints at a problem many Japanese men have faced at one time or other. How do you become a father to your kids when, workaholic that you are, you hardly ever see them?

Soshite Chichi ni Naru (Like Father, Like Son)
Director Hirokazu Koreeda
Run Time 121 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens Sept. 28, 2013

This certainly applies to the title father, Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama), who has devoted himself body and soul to his job at a major construction company, while paying only desultory attention to his 6-year-old son Keita (Keita Ninomiya). He even trains the poor kid to lie haltingly but successfully about a father-son outing in an admissions interview for a prestige school. Soon after, he and his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) get the devastating news, confirmed by a DNA test, that Keita is not really theirs: He and another boy were switched at birth.

This story is as old as the hills (Mark Twain’s 1881 novel “The Prince and the Pauper” is a variant on it), while being a common childhood fantasy — or nightmare. Koreeda, however, referenced true cases in writing his script and his take is correspondingly serious and typically naturalistic, though he does not completely avoid the melodramatics inherent in the material.

Since the two boys are so young, their respective parents begin a gradual transition with brief visits, rather than attempt a straightforward explanation and quick switch. They also initiate legal proceedings against the hospital responsible for the mix-up with the aid of Ryota’s lawyer friend (Tetsushi Tanaka).

So far, so logical — only of course everyone’s conflicted feelings soon surface. Ryota, a believer in order and protocol, is not pleased by Keita’s birth father Yudai Saiki (Lily Franky), the owner of a small electrical-goods store in the suburbs. A let-it-all-hang-out type, Saiki is a playful, indulgent dad to his rowdy brood, including 6-year-old Ryusei (Shogen Hwang). When he suggests that Ryota lighten up and follow his example, the response is chillingly (if politely) negative.

The two mothers — the soft-spoken Midori and the down-to-Earth Yukari (Yoko Maki) — are more successful than their men at bridging the gap between them, but neither relishes the process of exchanging their son for a stranger. Midori’s agony at her slow parting with doe-eyed little Keita is so wrenching to watch — her flowing tears as she packs his things away inspired an outbreak of sobs in the screening room (mine included) — that I began to think the film should have been titled “Haha de Aru (To Be a Mother).”

Also, Koreeda’s direction of the two boys, particularly pint-sized showbiz pro Ninomiya, is sensitive and unmanipulative. As he did in such child-centered films as “Daremo Shiranai (Nobody Knows)” and “Kiseki (I Wish),” Koreeda captures Keita and Ryusei’s doubts, fears and dawning realizations with the objectivity of a documentary filmmaker (his original profession), but also with the artistry to elicit and edit exactly the (often heart-wrenching) response the drama calls for.

The film, however, finally, belongs to Ryota and his uncertain progress toward becoming a better father and man. Fukuyama, a hugely popular singer-songwriter and TV drama actor, may seem a strange choice for this difficult role, especially at moments when that famous smile crinkles on that devastatingly handsome (still at 44) face. But he also looks as though he belongs in the dream life Ryota has been striving for since his boyhood in a typical middle-class family: cool job, high salary, spacious high-rise condo, beautiful loving wife and cute (if annoyingly ungifted) son.

When that life begins to crumble before Ryota’s eyes — and his first reaction is to buy his way out — it’s hard to feel sympathy. At the same time, his basic decency and sincerity are hard to ignore. When his own old-school father loudly proclaims the primacy of blood and Ryota argues that time spent together make for stronger father-son ties, we realize that, rather than a plastic Mr. Perfect, he’s a very human mass of contradictions.

Where another director might have resolved those contradictions in a big third-act awakening, Koreeda takes the less obvious path of small but spine-tinglingly acute epiphanies, as well as reverses that demand more of the hero than good intentions.

Is his rambunctious birth son really like him? And how about the son he raised for six years? Hardly a universal dilemma, but Ryota also has something in common with millions of us similarly struggling dads out there: His sons may not be mirrors, but they reflect back something of himself. Just try looking.

Fun fact: Koreeda began thinking about the meaning of fatherhood, when he became a dad five years ago. “I had to confront the old theme of whether (being a father) is more about blood or time spent together,” he says.

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