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— Elizabeth Hurley (as the devil), Bedazzled

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The Great Train Robbery

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Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda transcends contrivance in Like Father, Like Son, a mind-stretching look at complicated issues about the importance of genetics, environment and love.

Like Father, Like Son deals with all of those things, but attains even more of its power as a study of character and class differences, focused mainly on a man who’s torn between feelings for his son and the man he believes that child eventually should become.

Ryota wants to raise his son
Ryota wants to raise his son

Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) lives an affluent life with his wife Midori (Machiko Ono) and their six-year-old son Keita (Keita Ninomiya). The family seems to be doing well, although Keita doesn’t entirely fit his father’s notion of the ideal child.

Dad seems intent on raising a private-school achiever who shows early signs of developing the intelligence and killer instincts required to become successful in a highly competitive economy.

The movie’s major twist arrives when Ryota and Midori learn that Keita is not their biological child. They’re notified by a hospital that he was switched at birth with another infant, an occurrence that evidently happened with more frequency in the chaos of post-War Japan, but is almost unheard of in contemporary society.

Kore-eda then introduces us to the family that has been raising Ryota and Midori’s biological son. Yudai (Riri Furanki) and his wife Yukari (Yoko Maki) are parents to Ryusei (Shogen Hwang) along with their two other children.

The movie underscores the differences between the two families. Ryoto’s family creates an achievement-oriented environment; Yudai’s’ family thrives in an atmosphere that’s geared to allowing kids to be kids.

Ryoto, an architect by trade, can’t conceal his distaste for Yudai, a man who runs a meager appliance store and who talks with unembarrassed crassness about financial damages that might result from the hospital’s mistake.

Uncertain about how to proceed, the families begin to experiment. They agree that each will take their biological offspring for weekend visits. They’re told by authorities that most parents opt to reclaim their biological offspring.

Don’t get the wrong impression: Neither father is reduced to caricature. Both have strengths and weaknesses. Neither is made to seem a beacon of perfection.

Kore-eda (Maborosi, After Life, Still Walking and I Wish) fills in background and eventually tilts the film toward Ryota, who must deal with his own relationship with a father who re-married and with his ideas about what fatherhood actually means.

Kore-eda probably leans toward the side of nurture vs. nature, but maybe that’s just my bias showing. However you read the story, Like Father, Like Son reveals a lot about divisions within Japanese society, about the irrepressible individuality of children and about the sometimes uncertain role of men as parents.