Hirokazu Kore-eda, in his 28 year film career, has established himself as the foremost master of Japanese realist cinema. From his beginnings in 1998’s After Life to more recent hits such as Our Little Sister (2015), Kore-eda’s films have always had the impeccable ability to draw out the quiet beauty of the mundane, and hit emotional high notes in the most surprising of ways.
Dwelling just long enough on each scene to immerse viewers at every turn while also giving his characters enough to do without feeling boring, After The Storm feels like one of Kore-eda’s best works to date. Opening with a radio announcement of the coming typhoon, the titular storm actually only happens towards the last quarter of the film. After the Storm focuses instead on capturing more or less the entirety of its central character within its two hour runtime.
The story focuses on Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), a one-time prize winning author turned private detective who spends his earnings gambling. Following the death of his father, he visits his aged mother (Kirin Kiki, just a tiny bit eccentric and emanating all the charm of a typical Japanese obasan), while finding himself at odds with his sister, both suspecting the other of trying to take advantage of their mother’s pension. Meanwhile, Ryota attempts to patch things up with his ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki) and make the most of his limited time with his young son Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa, yet another child actor that proves Kore-eda has mastered exactly how to capture the very essence of childhood on screen).
Much of the film focuses on masculinity and purpose. Ryota, in a sense, has failed to become the ideal man, having ‘peaked early’, unable to maintain a stable family and in constant financial woe. There’s a sense of the cyclical here, as Ryota is constantly compared to his father. Having shared some truly personal and memorable moments with him, Ryota seeks to replicate that with his own son while he still can. Given the limited amount of time he has with his son, there’s a sense of urgency that drives the film along, and as a viewer, I was constantly wondering how he would develop his familial bonds, something that Kore-eda’s earlier films weren’t able to achieve quite as well as After the Storm. Hiroshi Abe is spot on casting, encapsulating the essence of a man who feels defeated by life, with little else motivating him except a drive to gamble and fritter his life away. There’s a tired slowness to his movement, an exhaustion in the closeups of his gaze that fills you with sadness, and imagine the man he could have been.
Which is precisely why Ryota’s later acceptance of his circumstances become so powerful, and his determination to make the most of his situation so compelling and moving. Ryota means well in his actions, doing the best he can to be a father to his son, and though he knows he has failed the expectations of himself and those around him, there is the hope that he continues to grow, even as a middle-aged man. As his mother herself shows, even at her ripe old age, she continues to pursue new interests (and new men) in the wake of her husband’s death. Life goes on, and it is all the characters can do to move along with it, learning from the triumphs of the past to build a better future for all of them.
Kore-eda achieves peak emotional impact in the quietest of moments in the film, with no need for a rousing soundtrack or an impassioned monologue. As Kyoko laments to Ryota’s mother that their relationship is well and truly over, Ryota’s mother’s eyes well up with tears, a sad but relatable moment as the two women share a mutual understanding, having both essentially married similar husks for husbands. But even though Kyoko’s made up her mind, it doesn’t mean that the family cannot hang out as friends, and as the family shares a tender moment during the storm, there’s a fragile, temporary flash of what-could-have-been.
After the Storm is undoubtedly one of Kore-eda’s best works to date, simple in its storyline but evoking the most primal of emotions with its complex, damaged characters who find the strength in themselves to forgive each other and accept that life isn’t perfect. Kore-eda’s devastating realism moves mountains in his achingly beautiful depiction of the everyday, and though heavy with its subject matter, one will walk away from the cinema with clearer eyes and a deeper appreciation for the little triumphs in life.
After the Storm will be released in UK Cinemas on 2nd June.