Written and directed by Japanese filmmaker Kore-eda Hirokazu, After the Storm follows Ryôta, a novelist turned private detective (but without all the gritty coolness) who finds himself lost after the death of his father. We meet Ryôta, first, before we see him. We hear his mother and sister discuss their disappointment and distrust in our troubled protagonist. When we finally catch a glimpse of Ryôta he is all smiles and modesty. The private detective visits his now widowed mother — a rare occurrence — but because of the introduction he’s given by his family we clearly see the Ryôta he’s pretending to be is not really him at all. The Ryôta we meet isn’t a grief stricken, compassionate son but instead a low-caliber con-artist. He sneaks through the house attempting to uncover his father’s leftover possessions so he can pawn them for money to pay the child support he’s behind on. The rest of the film follows Ryôta as he attempts to reconnect with his ex-wife and son despite resistance from all parties involved.
In truth, Ryôta is never what he appears to be, even to himself. With rare glimpses of his true identity we see him as a man struggling to discover, still, where he fits in the world. No longer writing, he’s lost any compass in his life. Now struggling with a gambling addiction that he inherited from his father, and may possibly pass on to his son, Ryôta seems to catch on to the fact that he’s not the person he desired to become. Though it must be noted he can never truly have that self-awareness. Instead he chooses to acknowledge what he can’t help but acknowledge: as a father, he has failed.
Despite the drama this story promises in its premise, Kore-eda Hirokazu’s film is surprisingly light. It is handled with precision and care, making each character appear real and honest despite the polite and formal nature of some of the encounters. The movie’s naturalism is challenged by the dramatic backdrop — a typhoon. The tropical cyclone is not used as a tragic set piece, but a simple component of the characters’ daily lives much like the inevitability of death. It’s the number of typhoons — twenty-three and twenty-four — that draws the audience’s attention and promises doom. The inclement weather is the manifestation of the chaos in their lives — if it can go wrong it will–but will it ever get better?
What adds to the naturalism is a script that feels more like a British comedy at times. You know what they say, one person’s British comedy is another person’s Japanese family drama. The sharp wit of the dialogue, the dry, morbid sense of humor and the unrestrained, candid nature of the family dynamics give the film a uniqueness of tone and entertainment that most films never match. At the same time its story is able to push past these aspects and still put theme front and center.
When Ryôta visits his mother and helps her water her plants, she says of one flora, “It doesn’t flower or bear fruit but I water it every day like it’s you.” Looking passed the obvious humor in this dig, this joke displays that the film is just as much about Ryôta’s failure in himself as it is his failure in his son — or at least the film implies that the failures are interconnected. “Great talents bloom late,” as his mother says, and this remains true throughout the film. Ryôta is a failed novelist: He has a lot of talent and a successful book but now he’s working as a detective and gambling his money away. His one job, to support his son, he can’t even do properly. On every level there’s failure but his talent remains. The metaphor of birth and rebirth through the comparison of Ryôta to the aforementioned tree is consistent. Even the concept that the typhoon is what brings them closer together in the end shows the lengths this rebirth is going to as he struggles to atone for his failures.
In much the same way, the depth of the film burrows deeper as we see Ryôta’s struggle with his father’s death. Grief is a tricky subject no matter what, but here it’s unique because the sorrow isn’t linked much to happy or fond memories or what-ifs for that relationship. Instead, his father’s passing reveals regrets and illuminates the failures found in his own life and in himself. It’s clear Ryôta’s mourning has caused him to remember the ways his father has failed him, how forgiveness is unattainable as he heads in the same direction with his son. What makes the film constantly engaging is that the audience knows this well before Ryôta does — assuming he ever does.
Abe Hiroshi as Ryôta looks like a Japanese Clint Eastwood and occasionally acts like it, too. He’s all brooding. He’s untrustworthy but charming enough making the audience root for him despite his innumerable faults. Kiki Kilin as Ryôta’s mother Yoshiko steals the show. She, too, is able to play games to get what she wants, but does so in a way that makes her more delightful than sinister. The relationship both Abe and Kilin bring to life makes the film more relatable as it goes.
After the Storm feels like Bicycle Thieves meets Woody Allen meets Cassavetes. It’s an example of mastery of tone. The film is expertly crafted but appears very natural. The music features a beautiful whistling and acoustic sound that feels like a Woody Allen film and gives the sense of place and characterization a melancholy feel. The backhanded family compliments will likely have you hesitating to pick up the phone the next time your mother calls. It captures the intimacy of family in both its bluntness and playfulness. The film leaves us drenched in ambiguity. It’s unsure where Ryôta’s next step will be. He has many paths to choose from but it’s still uncertain whether he’ll choose the right one. As Ryôta himself says, “I expected a better ending.” Still, I find ambiguity fitting for a character being so completely tugged between duty and selfishness. Here I must echo his mother Yoshiko’s response — too bad.