By Elias Savada.
The actual typhoon in After the Storm is more than a physical catastrophe. It’s a powerful metaphor for an acclimatized world of broken families. It takes more than half this modest, sensitive Japanese feature’s nearly two-hour running time for the gusts and driving rain to arrive, wherein the cleansing process begins. As the winds begin to howl, the movie has already set up its small epicenter swirling about an easily identifiable, universal family disrupted by divorce and riddled with low-key, but significant, emotional issues.
Writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s modern day set piece is small but potent. It aims to showcase and perhaps break a generational problem that has affected the glum, scuzzy, and unkempt Ryota Shinoda (Hirsoshi Abe), too often ignoring his expected responsibilities as a father. He never seems to be able to make child care payments (other bills are problematic, too), because of a gambling habit he shared with his recently deceased father. A promising career as a novelist evaporated after his book was published 15 years earlier, and he drudgingly makes his living as a private detective for a shady outfit. He likes to pretend it’s all for research for his next writing project, but that’s just another lie on a growing pile of them. He is prone to extort cash from any of his clients and their prey of cheating spouses. His dealings with his 11-year-old son Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa) are strained and his ex-wife, Kyoko (Yoko Maki), is fed up with his juvenile antics. She believes his idea of responsibility is behaving like the boy’s father “once a month.”
Kore-eda’s previous films — including Out Little Sister (2015), Like Father, Like Son (2013), and I Wish (2011) — all have won critical praise, but have had trouble finding audiences in the United States, each handled by a different arthouse distributor hoping to catapult over the meager box office numbers. Then again, the American box office scene for foreign films has been spiraling downward for years. That’s a whole other discussion.
Like most of his films, Kore-eda’s current one reflects on a small part of Japan that most of its natives, and even fewer foreigners, ever witness, although most of the world has experienced it in different back yards. It was filmed in Tokyo’s Asahigoaka housing complex, where the director lived for almost twenty years starting at age nine. It’s a place, like many others around the globe, where its inhabitants ache to move beyond its dilapidated apartments. That sadness is especially well captured by Kiki Kirin (another Kore-eda regular), who plays Ryota’s mother Yoshiko, and in whose cluttered home finds her, Ryota, Kyoko, and Shingo weathering the storm. She has her own agenda afoot after having suffered through a decades-long marriage. And she steals nearly every scene she’s in.
In After the Storm, the director is also back with his other muse, Hirsoshi Abe, in their fourth collaboration that began with Still Walking (2008), another day-in-the-life family drama in which he also played a son to Kirin’s character. Tall, dark, and handsome (and you would never guess he’s 52 years old), his troubled yet hopeful portrayal of a deflective man-child and derelict parent adds much to the new film’s forceful message.
Another theme in the director’s work — reflecting on damaging ties to the past and hoping for a brighter future — is showcased in several scenes in the film, or reflected in the dialogue. The gentrified feel to the surroundings. References to a neighborhood Chinese restaurant that is gone. Or a strawberry field that Ryota enjoyed as a child is now the location of a newly-built house. And once upon a time, he was happily married. Nostalgia didn’t keep that together, either.
The music score by Hanaregumi is extraordinary as it is brief, usually involving whistling and a piano. Yutaka Yamazaki’s camerawork is realistic throughout, and, as he does on all his directorial efforts, Kore-eda again edits with sophistication and care. After the Storm, nominated for the Un Certain Regard award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is perhaps his best work.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).