Hirokazu Kore-eda has seemingly inherited the role of chronicling Japanese middle class domestic life from Yasujiro Ozu. That isn’t to say their sensibilities are similar. Kore-eda is less formalist and more conventional than Ozu, but both have a keen eye for vivid details and characterization. That is on full display in Kore-eda’s latest, “After the Storm.” The film feels like it has a more personal touch, which is always a good thing as per the adage, “write what you know.” Indeed it has an autobiographical element to it. After the Storm was filmed at the Asahigaoka Housing Complex in Kiyose, Tokyo, where Kore-eda himself grew up.
Like the film’s story, Kore-eda’s mother lived in the complex after his father died. It starts with elderly widowed mother Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki) engaging in colorful banter with her daughter Chinatsu (Satomi Kobayashi). “New friends at my age only means more funerals,” Yoshiko wryly notes. Kore-eda keeps the story at a very leisurely pace, gradually doling out significant details. Only after this extended scene does the film’s true protagonist, Ryota Shinoda (Hiroshi Abe) appear. Ryota is tall, lanky, ruggedly handsome. He always seems to be hiding something, always an ulterior motive behind his facade. That doesn’t work out too well for him though as his mother points out, “You’re a bad liar unlike your father.”
While Ryota visits his mother, a neighbor of hers notes he once won a prize for a novel, “The Empty Table.” But that was 15 years ago and he hasn’t written anything since. He lives in a mess of an apartment. He’s a gambling addict constantly losing money. He now works for a private detective agency that fleeces its clients, usually over investigations to reveal extramarital affairs. His young partner Machida (Sosuke Ikematsu) sees Ryota is a mess but nevertheless seems to admire the older man.
A quarter of the way into the movie, Ryota and Machida spy on a couple and the woman’s son at a baseball game, but it turns out this isn’t a case and Kore-eda has introduced two of the story’s most significant players – Ryota’s son Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa) and his ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki). The beautiful Kyoko is now seeing a wealthy real estate mogul who can give her the financial stability that deadbeat Ryota could not. Ryota only sees his son once a month and whenever he turns up, Kyoko demands large amounts of back pay child support he owes her.
The desperate good-for-nothing character is a familiar enough story trope from Ratso Rizzo in “Midnight Cowboy” to Johnny Boy in “Mean Streets” that it’s almost a stereotype. Furthermore, another trope in the story is how the spectre of Ryota’s deceased father hangs over everything. Ryota has strived not to be like his father only to find out he has become just like him. These two clichés could be deadly in a lot of dramas, but Hiroshi Abe makes the role his own unique way. Ryota is always sympathetic. He wants to be a good father. He’s not malicious minded. He just can’t control his impulses, and he has been trying to fool people for so long about who he is that he’s fooled himself. The story is about whether he can recognize that, whether he is who he wants to be, and whether he can live in the moment instead of always the past or the future.
The film is marred by some sentimentality near the end and some of the metaphors and dialogue are too on the nose. Every line of dialogue that sticks out gets a callback later in the story that almost makes it feel too schematic. Still, every single character is memorable including Ryota’s capricious boss (Lily Franky) and the pretty assistant (Yuri Nakamura) at the detective agency who always seems to be the smartest person in the room. The details in the film are vivid and feel lived in – a boarded up playground, a Mizuno baseball glove, Machida mentioning his divorced parents in a poignant moment, Shingo pointing to a less expensive shoe when Ryota offers to buy him some cleats, Ryota’s ex-brother-in-law’s excitement to see Kyoko because of her beauty, Ryota telling his son he’s not hungry at lunch when he actually has no money left, and Chinatsu setting a trap in her mom’s closet for Ryota. All of these build up to being more than the sum of its parts. For anyone, being compared to Ozu is daunting, but Kore-eda needn’t be ashamed, not with efforts like “After the Storm.”