After the Storm *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Hirokazu Koreeda.
Written by: Hirokazu Koreeda.
Starring: Hiroshi Abe (Ryota Shinoda), Yōko Maki (Kyoko Shiraishi), Taiyô Yoshizawa (Shingo Shiraishi), Kirin Kiki (Yoshiko Shinoda), Satomi Kobayashi (Chinatsu Shinoda).
The films of Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda are always quiet and subtle. He doesn’t seem to have much use for plot, and while he makes films that are essentially family dramas, he doesn’t like big, emotional breakdown scenes either. His films build slowly and quietly – and you don’t always see their cumulative effect until after the film is over. He has been compared to another Japanese master – Yasajiro Ozu – and the comparison works in a number or ways (not in others). Both filmmakers have spent their careers, not making the same film over and over again, but similar films again and again – so similar, and so unconcerned with plot in fact, that they almost start to blend together into one large, quiet work. And I don’t mean that as an insult.
His latest, After the Storm, is about a writer – Ryota Shinoda (Hiroshi Abe) – who is unable to deal with the present. He lives in the past, and looks forward to the future, but in the here and now, he’s pretty useless. He wrote and award winning novel 15 years ago – and hasn’t been able to follow it up yet. He works at a low rent detective agency – he says he’s doing research for his novel, although there’s little proof he’s doing that. He’s gotten divorced from Kyoko (Yoko Maki), and now struggles to pay child support for his soon, Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa). Sometimes he takes his partner at the agency, and follows his former wife and son – even on her new dates – which confuses his partner, who says he never mentioned his wife and son before the divorce. One night – it “happens” to be one of the days he has Shingo – he goes to his mother’s house, even though a typhoon is bearing down on them. Kyoko shows up to pick up Shingo, but is essentially trapped there overnight. During the course of the night – essentially the last half of the film – there are a series of quiet talks – essentially between every possible pairing of the four people there. There are no big moments, no big revelations, pledges, promises or tears. And yet, after the storm, things do seem at least slightly different – slightly more optimistic.
I liked the second half of the film more than the first. In the first, Koreeda seems slightly more adrift than usual – he has quite a few characters, all of whom have their own personal dramas, that come into contact with Ryota – cheating wives and husbands at the agency, or his shady boss, or his chatty assistant, the high school kid he tries to shakedown, etc. Koreeda excels most when he’s in the plotless moments- like the day Ryota and Shingo spend together before the storm – how Ryota insists on buying his son the “expensive” cleats (he doesn’t really need), then scuffs them to try and get a discount – or when he takes his son to the good burger place, but won’t get himself one (I’m not hungry, he lies to his son). He’s broke – he’s tried to scam money or borrow it from his sister, or find his mother’s secret stash, etc – but he doesn’t want to admit it. The whole second half of the movie – quiet conversations, in which people accept the reality they don’t want to be true, is tremendously moving – and healing.
The performances help a great deal of course – none more than Hiroshi Abe as Ryota. There is a way – perhaps an easier way – in which he could have made Ryota into a creepy bad guy – he does after all stalk his ex-wife, and try to steal from his mother, who already lives in a not very nice housing complex. Yet Abe makes him into something sadder – something slightly more pathetic – yet still allows you to see him as a good guy. He’s trying, even if he’s not always sure what he’s trying to do. He is more than ably supported by the two women in the film – Yoko Maki – as his tried ex-wife, who just wants some sense of normalcy in her life, and Kirin Kiki as Ryota’s mother – who both wants him to get back together with his ex, and understands precisely why she won’t (Ryota’s mother stayed with her husband – who was also constantly broke).
When I consider the work of Koreeda – and I will admit I haven’t seen them all (apparently, I really need to see After Life and Still Walking – which are among the film people claim are his very best) – I don’t know if I’d consider After the Storm to be among his best. It didn’t hit me quite as hard as the children in peril Nobody Knows, or the childhood swap of Like Father, Like Son – but as an ongoing continuation of everything Koreeda, it is another piece in a wonderful career.