I still marvel at how effortlessly intimate and humane the works of Hirokazu Kore-eda are. Many of his family dramas such as “Still Walking” (2008) and “Like Father, Like Son” (2013) are mostly somber and quiet on the surface, but they are undeniably powerful in their gentle, thoughtful observations of small but genuine human interactions, and they always make me reflect on life and people, two important things I often overlook in my busy inconsequential daily life.
In his new film “After the Storm”, Kore-eda presents another delicate family drama which is alternatively humorous and touching, and it is surely a pleasure to watch how his story subtly rolls along with its characters. Through the episodic glimpses of their daily life during summer days, the movie lets us get to know and understand its four main characters bit by bit, and we find ourselves involved in its bittersweet mix of humor and pathos as it arrives at the expected narrative point.
For Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), life has been not that good for many years. There was a time when it looked like he would be a successful writer after the publication of his first novel which won some literature award, but that was more than 10 years ago, and he has been stuck in writer’s block since that without any particular progress on what might be his second novel. When a minor character briefly talks about his first novel at one point, I could not help but be reminded that many first novels are already waiting for being written by their writers from the start. Sure, anyone has at least one story to tell, but what ultimately matters for your writing career is whether you have any other ones to tell.
Anyway, he has so far managed to earn his living through his, uh, research work for story materials, though he is frequently short of money due to his gambling problem besides the alimony for his ex-wife Kyoko (Yôko Maki). He works at a detective agency whose main business fields are missing pets and extramarital affairs, and his work ethics are pretty flexible to say the least. In one case, he and his young assistant Kento (Sôsuke Ikematsu) approach to a woman they are supposed to investigate for their client, and they soon get paid from both sides while not telling anything to their amiable boss played by Lily Frankie.
And he is not very good to his family either. When he comes to his family home in an old housing complex not long after his father died, the first thing he does is checking whether there is anything valuable left by his deceased father, whom he resembles more than he admits. While his aging mother Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki) is happy to see her dear son again, his no-nonsense sister Chinatsu (Satomi Kobayashi) knows better, and the apparent tension between her and Ryota later leads to one of the funniest moments in the film.
While it looks like Kyoko will marry again, Ryota tries to be a nice dad for their young son Shingo (Taiyô Yoshizawa), but, not so surprisingly, things do not go as well as he intended mainly thanks to his immature behaviors and thoughtless decisions. He continues to fail to pay the alimony to Kyoko’s frustration, and it seems Shingo is well aware of many of Ryota’s shortcomings, though he does not dislike his father at all.
Leisurely looking around Ryota and other characters, the movie gradually focuses on Ryota’s personal disappointment and disillusionment. Still not getting over from many failures of his life, he naturally wonders about how he has become as pathetic as his father, and he comes to feel more of the wide gap between his old aspiration and his shabby reality. Maybe he may complete his second novel and then get it published someday, but life always demands far more than hope and dream, and he may have to be a little more practical and responsible for not only himself but also others who care about him.
As announced around the beginning of the movie, a summer typhoon eventually arrives, and we get a domestic situation reminiscent of one of the dramatic moments in Kore-eda’s first feature film “Maborosi” (1995). Ryota, Kyoko, and Shingo happen to stay together at Yoshiko’s apartment while it is a dark and stormy night outside, and Kore-eda deftly balances this situation between comedy and drama as his characters go through their restless night, which feels rather predictable at first but then surprises us with precious low-key moments to savor and appreciate.
Most of the main cast members are probably familiar to you if you have seen Kore-eda’s previous works, and they all give well-rounded performances full of human nuances. Looking constantly jaded and disillusioned, Hiroshi Abe makes no excuse about his hangdog character who is often pretty unlikable and unreliable in many aspects; we do not like Ryota much, but we understand his human flaws at least, and it is touching to see when he slowly comes to realize how he can follow his better sides rather than being merely unhappy. Yôko Maki is fine as a woman who is more realistic than her ex-husband, and she has a good scene when her character has a little private conversation with Ryota. While Kirin Kiki is delightful to watch as usual, Lily Frankie, Sôsuke Ikematsu, Satomi Kobayashi are also enjoyable in their respective supporting roles, and young actor Taiyô Yoshizawa’s unaffected performance reminds me again that not many filmmakers in the world can surpass Kore-eda in handling child performer.
With simple gestures, the final scene of “After the Storm” makes a good point on how we can be nice and kind to each other in our life, and that takes me back to what late critic Roger Ebert once said: “I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.” Considering how much my dear friend loved and admired many of Kore-eda’s works, I think he would love “After the Storm” too.