In the family

Hirokazu Kore-eda on Like Father, Like Son

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Hirokazu Kore-eda: "The more elements you add to the characters the more rich they become."
Hirokazu Kore-eda: "The more elements you add to the characters the more rich they become."

On a mild October morning during the New York Film Festival, I took a stroll through Central Park with Hirokazu Kore-eda to talk about his favorite season, clothes clues, casting children, Eric Rohmer and Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks. When I commented that we should have brought a kite, he said he wasn't very good at it. His latest film Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru) starring Masaharu Fukuyama, Machiko Ono, Yôko Maki, and Lily Franky, tells the unsettling story of babies swapped in the hospital, and the way two families deal with the discovery six years later. Continuing with the matters of his thought-provoking film, I asked the director the same question the six-year-old protagonist Keita (Keita Ninomiya) has to answer in his kindergarten placement interview.

Anne-Katrin Titze: What's your favorite season?

Hirokazu Kore-eda: Summer.

"What is your favorite season?" seems a suitable question to ask a six-year-old when determining school placement. If the way he answers could be a factor in his parents' decision to get rid of him and exchange him for another six-year-old boy, we are on the emotional continent Hirokazu Kore-eda maps out for us.

AKT: I see your film as a love story, focusing on the love of children for their parents. On the parental side, you show Ryota's [Masaharu Fukuyama] relationship with his father and the mother's [Machiko Ono as Midori] relationship with her mother.

HK: About the love - for the main character there is his relationship with his son but also with his father. The relationship with his father is important as well. As long as he doesn't work on that, he actually can't have a loving relationship with his son. It's double, there are two love relationships.

AKT: You are drawing a figure 8 in the air with your hand. Can you explain?

HK: There are two axes and two parent/child relationships. They overlap. The more elements you add to the characters the more rich they become.

Hirokazu Kore-eda on Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota with Keita: "It's double, there are two love relationships."
Hirokazu Kore-eda on Masaharu Fukuyama as Ryota with Keita: "It's double, there are two love relationships."

AKT: There are some great lines in your film where characters set each other straight. "You wouldn't exchange pets either" is one of them. You startle the audience with dialogue, with sudden spoken truths that reveal different standpoints. I see them as anchors, or lampposts. Is this how you structure your films?

I am pointing to the lampposts in the park across from the bench where we are sitting. Dogs from the doggy run nearby are barking loudly with autumn morning joy. A helicopter flies overhead.

HK (laughs): I never actually noticed those lampposts you are describing. In terms of my thought process, it really was the issues between blood or the raising of the child. There's many different characters and many different standpoints, when writing the dialogue. For example some people would say that raising a child, spending time with them is more important than having a blood connection. Others would prioritize the blood. There's a line from the mother in the movie saying that even within couples they come to resemble each other. There's different takes on that. Looking at these issues in regard to the importance of blood line, that's something I did with the dialogue.

AKT: A line in the film states that over 90 percent do switch their children when a mistake is discovered. Is this based on fact or did you use this to illustrate the standpoint of a character?

HK: That was the case 40 years ago. When I did my research, actually 100 percent, all the cases switched back.

This is not a documentary, and Kore-eda, who also wrote the script, might have used these "facts" more to inform us about the lawyers who say them to the distraught families.

AKT: That's startling.

HK: This was actually 40 years ago. I think things have changed in terms of making that choice. Now there's many people, including myself who would have quite a bit of unease doing that. So in terms of the attitude toward bloodline, I think there's been a change in Japanese society. Having said that, though, the adoption system is not very common in Japan. I think that does indicate that there is still a sort of conservative value toward the importance of bloodline. In Japan it's quite strong.

AKT: What do you mean when you say the adoption system isn't strong in Japan?

HK: It's interesting, actually. In Japan, in terms of people having adopted children when they also have their own children is something many would not be able to understand. If people have no choice, it could be an alternative. It wouldn't be something they do in addition to their own children. Only when there's nothing that could be done, they'd adopt a child that's not their own. And they would say that their own biological child was probably cuter. I think that's something in Japan most people would say.

Machiko Ono as Midori with Keita (Keita Ninomiya).
Machiko Ono as Midori with Keita (Keita Ninomiya).

AKT: Because cases of swapped babies haven't happened much since the Sixties, you made the choice to include the nurse's role in the story? Adding a third family to the picture?

HK: In regards to that family, they're not even related by blood. They're a step family so there is a different parent child relationship. Of course, in the situation she is the perpetrator. But for the main character she serves as a mirror for him as well, because she was able to have this relationship he was not able to have in his own childhood. In that sense it's a defeat for him. That was the composition I tried to create.

AKT: The children in your film are wonderful. It seems that you found the perfect children and you guide them perfectly. Can you talk about your casting process?

HK: Actually, I'm doing the same auditioning style for the last ten years since Nobody Knows (Dare Mo Shiranai, 2004). Rather than the children's acting, I'm looking during audition at the way they speak, the words they use, the communication with them. I want to see the vocabulary they're using, the expression on their faces, I am basically observing them. And the words they use I am going to incorporate into my script. When I have an interaction with them, it's not via words, it's more the sound how I communicate with them. And this time especially I used that method. So it's not that I'm really feeding them lines from the outside. I don't think they would have that perception. Initially, of course, I do work with them on the lines but then it becomes within the actors themselves, the mother, the father and the child working on the lines. And they might say, Keita, you try saying that. We sort of work it out that way - during the rehearsals that's the process I follow. I'm out of the picture at that point.

AKT: Was there something specific that you could pinpoint about the little boy Keita that made you say this is the one?

HK: His eyes.

AKT: And his mouth? I see you move your mouth as he does.

HK: Yes. Also, although I don't believe in this so strongly, but I decided on the name Ryota for the main character. 'Ryo' is 'good' and 'Ta' means 'many' or 'alive' in the Chinese character for that. And the name for the actor of Keita is also Keita. 'Kei' is for 'joy' and the 'Ta' part is also 'many' - it's actually the same character. And in Japan there is a tradition where the father would give a character from their own name to the child. But I don't think it was a sign from god that this was the child I should work with.

AKT: A question about your costumes. I liked how much you tell about the social background and the personalities with what the two families are wearing - from little Keita's elk pajamas to a very funny Lily Franky's abundant plaid. How did you work with the costume designer?

HK: The costume designer is actually Akira Kurosawa's daughter Kazuko. I worked with her on Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo, 2008) and we collaborated on this film as well. My idea for Ryota's house was to have everything very monotone, no prints, very simple like that. For the other father, he liked wearing check, plaid.

AKT: And prints?

HK: Exactly. There's a supermarket that was in the area where that family lived and you could get everything for the parents and the children there. It was sort of a uniformity that they were wearing that I was trying to create. I think it went quite well. Even with the same item of black clothing, I wanted to accentuate the economic differences of the families.

AKT: People who know the areas would recognize where they went shopping?

HK: Yes, someone from the area could tell that this or that item cost less than 20 dollars.

Hirokazu Kore-eda with Anne-Katrin Titze in Central Park: Lily Franky  "liked wearing check, plaid."
Hirokazu Kore-eda with Anne-Katrin Titze in Central Park: Lily Franky "liked wearing check, plaid." Photo: Stacy Smith

AKT: There were moments in your film that made me think of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Dekalog, especially 1 and 4. Were there any filmmakers you were thinking about when you made Like Father, Like Son? Less films about child swapping than in the tone or mood?

HK: I really like Kieslowski but it wasn't someone I thought about. The story was completely different but I told my cameraman [Mikiya Takimoto] that the image I had, the world view I wanted to convey was Eric Rohmer's Les Nuits De La Pleine Lune (Full Moon in Paris, 1984). There were many really great urban scenes. Night scenes.

AKT: Is it true that Steven Spielberg is interested in a remake of your movie?

HK: We actually signed a short form contract already. I think we'll go ahead with the remake.

AKT: With your screenplay?

HK: My script and American actors.

AKT: Directed by?

HK: I'm not sure yet. We're going to leave that to DreamWorks.

Steven Spielberg became involved in initiating an American remake at DreamWorks after he saw the film at Cannes where he was president of the jury that awarded the film the Prix du Jury.

Hirokazu Kore-eda's Like Father, Like Son (Soshite chichi ni naru) is an urgent film about love - not the love of parents for their children, but of the children's love for those who raise them. The film opens in the US on January 17.

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