The latest from writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda is another triumph. On paper the Cannes Jury Prize winner sounds like a live-action Disney movie from the ’80s or maybe something starring Kirk Cameron or a show on ABC Family. Two families, opposite in every way, discover their 6-year-old sons were switched at birth. Now they must decide whether to switch back while dealing with the expected strain on their families. It’s high concept material usually reserved for easy laughs and easier emotions. But in Kore-eda’s hands the plot is merely a jumping off point. It’s a way for him to question family bonds, explore class structures, and breathe life into the old nature versus nurture debate.
In order to make any of this work, Kore-eda first creates two believable families. Ryota (Masaharu Fukuyama) is the head of the well-off Nonomiyas. He’s a hard working businessman who could stand to spend a little more time with his wife and son. He’s strict but fair with father issues of his own. The Saiki clan live modestly outside the city. They’re much more laid back, chewing straws and sharing baths. The film isn’t necessarily funny, but there is some nice humor watching these two groups try and mingle. Ryota judges them but Kore-eda does not. Neither family or way of life is presented as better or right, just different.
More importantly, the paternity bombshell forces Ryota to take a hard look at what he expects from himself as a father. The film wisely avoids painting Ryota as a villain. He’s not a terrible dad. He’s understandably flawed like the rest of us and coping with an untenable situation. Eventually the two families have trial weekends, swapping children in small increments to see how it goes. Nothing melodramatic happens but the quiet moments are themselves seismic. The film is masterful at capturing delicate familial interplay. It’s heartbreakingly precise. Even the main plot gimmick and the extreme family differences are given an organic explanation. It’s a film of natural simplicity. Which should not be mistaken for vérité. The camera isn’t shaking around hoping to catch a real moment. But real moments persist throughout, like an awkward attempted hug or the excitement and confusion of a new home. It’s about understanding and it’s about translating that knowledge to the screen without commotion.
The big question, the driving force of the narrative is ultimately left open. Now that’s not the same as unanswered but probably less definitive than most would like. Two hours of superbly crafted and performed movie felt like more than enough for me. There’s an extra theme about breaking away from artificiality that also works because this movie is so warm and inviting. It’s emotional but not frivolous. It’s comfort food without any of the calories.