It’s clear that families and life choices remain on the mind of Japanese writer-director-editor Hirokazu Kore-eda after watching his latest film. In his 2013 feature Like Father, Like Son, where the consequences of two sons being switched at birth are seen on one perfectionist but emotionally distant father, Kore-eda mused over parental responsibility and genuine connection, while also grappling with the more obvious problem of nature versus nurture. After the Storm returns to these similar themes while discarding the headier philosophical debate. Unlike Life Father, Like Son, Kore-eda successfully draws you into a family that is emotionally layered, complex and touching. Where his 2013 film could be simplistic and ponderous, After the Storm emerges as a more thoughtful, confident and quietly engaging piece of cinema.
As a tsunami prepares to strike Japan for the twenty-fourth time, novelist Ryota Shinoda (Hiroshi Abe) is already trying to cope with another ‘storm’ that has swept through his family life. His marriage to Kyoko (Yōko Maki) has collapsed and he is left with alimony money to pay and only one monthly visit from his son Shingo (Taiyô Yoshizawa). At the same time, the father that didn’t appreciate his literary talent and whose personality Ryota has longed to distance himself from, has recently passed away. Taking work as a dubious private detective (for inspiration, of course!), Ryota is a dysfunctional mess, continually in debt and showing no sign of a moral compass as he blackmails and backstabs his clients. His exasperated sister Chinatsu (Satomi Kobayashi) and ex-wife deplore how wayward he has become, but he remains beloved and understood by his elderly mother Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki). ‘Great talents bloom late’ she remarks to Chinatsu, not that she doesn’t know when Ryota rummages her home for her pension money and food. By chance, as the tsunami hits, Ryota, Kyoko and Shingo are forced to stay the night in Yoshiko’s cramped housing complex flat. Here the regrets and guilt, embitterments and shame, begin to emerge and it is unknown whether they will all be able to weather it.
There is a quiet, calm energy to After the Storm, from composer Takashi Nagazumi’s whistling score to the pale, washed-out palette, that belies the turmoil, poignancy and humour that Kore-eda infuses in his screenplay. While at times there are platitudes and aphorisms abound (‘Great talents bloom late’ becomes a recurring phrase in this film, alongside opposing views that ‘life is simple/complicated’) there is also a considered wisdom that acknowledges part of life’s difficulty is the inevitable or unexpected changes that come with it. Kore-eda, more specifically, grapples with unresolved, intergenerational pain over unmet expectations and aspirations. Kore-eda doesn’t foreground or signpost this in any immediate or obvious way. These impressions grow as you observe the character’s daily lives, watching and listening to them, noticing their motivations and contradictions. For much of the film, Kore-eda just sits you with them in the family kitchen; has you walk alongside them in the barren or busy streets. While the dialogue can be openly sentimental at times, Kore-eda often undercuts these weaknesses with wry, well-timed comedy. Upon making a profound realisation with Ryota during a late night chat, Yoshiko acknowledges she said ‘something really deep’ that he could use for his next novel and is soon rummaging around for a pen for him to write it down. It is a highly amusing but knowing moment, one of many that percolate throughout the film.
Kore-eda is also brave enough to write a self-serving, self-pitying protagonist who gambles, blackmails, lies and cheats but still invites us to extend some sympathy. Abe’s performance is terrific as he manages to show that Ryota’s self-deprecation, unkempt hair and creased clothing is a pathetic cover for his hurt pride and ego. His permanently grave countenance soon breaks into jealousy and despondence when his insecurities are shown, which Abe brings out with excellent comedic timing and sulking posture. ‘Do you think they’ve done it yet?’ he asks his new detective partner when he spies his former wife with her new boyfriend, barely containing his jealousy. Yet perhaps it is Abe’s mournful eyes or his clear commitment to and love for his son, that levels out this otherwise dysfunctional individual.
There is also the wonderful performances from the women- all mostly terse toward Ryota and appreciative, loving towards each other. Kiki, especially, roots the family with her perceptive but forgiving nature, displaying both her coddling fondness and honest regret over her son’s actions. Maki is another force of nature, as she brings a determined stern-ness to Kyoko, avoiding Ryota’s excuses and advances upon her and remaining cautiously cold with him. The intimate cinematography by Yutuka Yamasaki of the tight spaced and lived in flat reinforces these brilliant, naturalistic performances. Whether its the lingering over the simple shelf-top shrine to the deceased or the various scenes of cooking and eating together, there is a domestic and familial joy trying to rise above the melancholy and loneliness. Kore-eda’s compensating mid shots and close-ups only demonstrate how close this family really is or could be beneath these confronting circumstances.
The actual occurrence of ‘the storm’ is probably the least interesting part of Kore-eda’s film. It is merely a functional background detail used to ensure two characters confront each other without an obvious escape route. By this point, however, Kore-eda has already intrigued and tickled you enough to stick it out. After all, this is not a film about physical but emotional survival. As such, After the Storm has a curiously cleansing effect by the time it ends: its sweetness, though at times manipulative, is emotionally satisfying, while it equally and, in my view successfully, encourages you to reflect deeply upon its themes.