(These notes were written for an Evening Class titled ‘All in the Family’ and covering ‘family dramas’ of different kinds, held at the National Media Museum in 2013)
Like Father, Like Son won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and on its release in Japan became an instant hit with Japanese audiences, opening at No 1 and earning over $24 million in its first 17 days. This popularity at the Japanese box office surprised Western critics and the film, as well as being a genuine ‘family drama’, now stands as a case study in the difference between the responses of Western arthouse critics and Japanese popular audiences.
The Japanese family drama
The history of Japanese cinema reveals a studio system that was in many ways, especially in the 1930s and 1950s, as extensive and as efficient in meeting audience needs as that of Hollywood. Japan’s three main studios, Shochiku, Nikkatsu and Toho produced action films, comedies and social dramas and amongst these were films about families. In the West we tend to have seen only the ‘quality’ family films from the post-war period such as those of Ozu and the rather different family scenarios found in some of Kurosawa’s contemporary-set films.
Although there have been two-way ‘exchanges’ of films between Japan and the US in the sense of ‘remakes’ or ‘versions’ of films from one country in the other since at least the 1950s, there are definitely ‘differences’ for audiences in the West when watching Japanese family dramas. These are possibly enhanced by the approach taken by Kore-eda Hirokazu.
Kore-eda entered filmmaking as a documentary director and you may not find this surprising because of the way he effortlessly seems to observe his characters in everyday locations. When he moved into fiction films, he became more like a ‘festival film director’, admired and celebrated for his carefully organised dramas, often about children and families. Some of these films have featured quite ‘extreme’ settings. In Nobody Knows (2004), based on a news story, four young children, each with a different father, are abandoned by their single-parent mother. They attempt to stay together in a form of ‘secret life’, not attending school and staying hidden most of the time. Kore-eda tends to take quite a cool detached perspective on these events, choosing not to exploit the emotional possibilities of the narrative. This may, of course, enhance the emotional resonances for audiences – or it may leave them dissatisfied.
Kore-eda’s films before Like Father, Like Son have appealed mainly to the festival circuit and the international art cinema market. Earlier this year his film I Wish (2011), about two young brothers separated when their parents split up, was warmly received here at the National Media Museum. One comment was that the film was “gossamer light” in its handling of family relationships. Will we respond in the same way to a similarly complex family drama? I Wish revealed to us that Japanese laws about divorce, separation and custody are different to those in the West. The same is true about adoption and the care of children generally. Like Father, Like Son does to some extent explain the background to a story in which babies in a maternity ward end up with the wrong mothers – a mistake which is not discovered until six years later. Certain issues about how this is resolved are important and you may wish to reflect on how they are represented in the film.
The two families in the film come from different class positions as signified by the father’s occupations – an architect and a local shopkeeper. This class difference is emphasised in many ways. In both families, however, the wife and mother seems to have less status in what is still a more patriarchal society. Japan ranks close to the bottom of indicators for gender equality across the more advanced economies. The middle-class family of the architect (and son of a businessman) is quite austere and emotionally cold, although the mother’s mother tries to inject some warmth. The other family is more anarchic. The father minds the shop and ‘fixes’ electrical gadgets. He is clearly an engaging dad – but also quite materialist in his attempt to always get the best deal. His wife is the most hard-worked and possibly the most loving. Kore-eda is careful to make each character ’rounded’ with good and bad points. This is a subtle and probing film narrative.
The other tension in Japanese society has often been quoted as being between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’. Ironically, in the film’s narrative, the seemingly most ‘modern’ character behaves in perhaps the most traditional manner re the ‘proper’ upbringing of children. It is one of the older characters who observes that questions about parentage, adoption, ‘blood relatives’ etc. were all put aside during the early post-war years under US Occupation because so many children had lost parents. But since then the trend to smaller nuclear families has increased the importance of ‘blood ties’.
Kore-eda himself in a newspaper interview for Asahi Shimbun explains that the idea for the film came from his own experience with his (then) 3 year-old daughter. He realised that because of his long trips away as a filmmaker his daughter was responding to him as a ‘nice visitor’ rather than her biological father. When he did some research he discovered that ‘mistakes’ in the maternity ward happened quite often in the 1960s and 1970s and that when they discovered this, parents invariably chose to ‘swap’ the children back on the grounds that blood was most important. During this research, he also became disturbed by the Japanese government’s plans to define a ‘family’ in law. Kore-eda argues that “A family is not something that any one person or group can define as being “this.”
What is also clear from the interview is that what actually motivated Kore-eda was thinking about his relationship with his own father. This perhaps explains why he chose ‘fathers and sons’ rather than daughters. The film narrative therefore really focuses on the middle-class father who has the means to make the most important choices which will affect everyone else. (The father is played by Fukuyama Masaharu, one of the many East Asian music stars who have graduated to film roles.)
Critical and popular response
As several reviewers have pointed out, Like Father, Like Son has a plot that could drive countless daytime soaps or 19th century novels and the TV serials or Hollywood melodramas based on them. Kore-eda’s ‘restraint’ in the way he handles the story has been seen by some as making the drama ‘light’ and the film far too long. Japanese popular audiences clearly disagree. This leads us to discuss Western (specialised cinema) and Japanese audiences and the differences between them. I recently undertook a very limited research exercise in which I looked at four films that featured in the Japanese box office chart for ‘domestic’ productions in 2010 and which subsequently were distributed in the UK in 2011. Two of the four films were moderate ‘hits’ in the UK – the adaptation of Murakami Haruki’s novel Norwegian Wood and the samurai film 13 Assassins from Takashi Miike. The other two films only received a handful of cinema screenings. One was an adaptation of a crime fiction novel with the English title Villain and the other was a stylish horror film set in a secondary school, Confessions. These films made very little money in the UK yet in Japan they were the two most praised films of the year, winning all the major awards – and in addition they were much more successful at the Japanese box office than the other two titles.
There are various factors about distribution that help to explain what happened in the UK to all four titles but even so, my conclusion is that audiences in the West have very fixed ideas about what a Japanese film is like and the more like ‘real life’ in Japan the film is, the less chance it has in the UK. Much of this is explained by the twin attraction of ‘extreme films’ on the one hand (e.g. from Takashi Miike) and the ‘exotic’ Orientalist attraction of certain kinds of Japanese literature and art. (This four film case study is discussed in Chapter 5 of The Global Film Book.)
I am intrigued to discover what we all think of Like Father, Like Son. Will we find it to be a sensitive look at another culture’s social issues, a weak version of a US TV movie or something else again? In terms of the Hollywood connection, I should tell you that Steven Spielberg was President of the Cannes Jury in May and that the company he founded, Dreamworks, has already bought the remake rights. Kore-eda appears to be directly involved in initial discussions for an American version.
[Most of the class liked the film a great deal. I liked it too, but I felt that it wasn’t as strong as some of his earlier titles – and indeed the previous film, I Wish. So now I am intrigued as to why it was so popular in Japan. Was it because it is about an important social issue as Kore-eda suggests or is it because the local distributor had more confidence in its appeal to audiences and promoted it more effectively? Please comment if you know about the Japanese release.]
Kore-eda interview (in English):