Long championed as his generation’s Yasujiro Ozu, Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda (Still Walking, Like Father Like Son) makes grown-up films about flawed families, often centering on how we deal with death and other life changes. He’s not an Ozu mimic — he doesn’t share the late master’s formal rigor — but both directors were/are wise beyond their years. They’re both particularly deft at illuminating, with compassion and forgiveness, the more unsavory aspects of human behavior.
These days, Ozu descendants are as rare to encounter as their movies are difficult to sell, but Kore-eda has been plying his trade with the increasing richness that comes with life experience. He’s earned the unusual distinction of a bankable humanist.
Just as Ozu’s nuanced messages transcended language and culture, Kore-eda’s best work has a universality that’s nearly peerless. After the Storm, which premiered last year at Cannes, doesn’t rank among his top-shelf films, but its central themes and quotidian details alike generate ripples of recognition, reminding us that mid-grade Kore-eda is like most directors’ prime cuts.
More monofocused than the director’s ensemble dramedies, After the Storm orbits around Ryota (versatile Kore-eda regular Hiroshi Abe), a once-celebrated novelist who’s fallen on hard times. His unyielding father recently died, and he’s divorced from his wife (Yoko Maki), who maintains custody of their young boy (Taiyo Yoshizawa). Bitter and resentful, Ryota whiles away his life at the racetrack, hemorrhaging the middling income he earns as an unscrupulous private detective. He leeches off his family, including his sister Chinatsu (Satomi Kobayashi), a small business owner, and his mother Yoshiko (an unforgettable Kirin Kiki), a pensioner in a cramped housing complex who yearns for a spacious apartment.
Ryota began his private-eye work, perhaps, as a genuine research project for a sophomore novel that has not materialized. But the phantom book has become his crutch. “I’m just here for my writing,” he continues to insist. Ryota is the kind of liar who fibs so much that he’s come to believe his fictions, a jaundiced worldview that affects everyone around him like a cancer.
More than once, Ryota reminded me of Bernard Berkman, Jeff Daniels’ wayward father in The Squid and the Whale, another prizewinning author shamelessly navigating a separation, a character just as quick to use his offspring as pawns or props. But Ryota doesn’t share Bernard’s pompousness. He’s a more earthen coward, given to more proletarian pursuits, and skillfully embodied by Abe with a hangdog complexion whose handsome features have been long paved over. He always seems a week away from living on the street.
Unlike his protagonist, Kore-eda is no misanthrope, and his tunnels often lead to light, no matter how cavernous they initially seem. He understands that even the ethically bankrupt can bestow constructive lessons, by presenting us a path to avoid. If anything, Kore-eda is too generous toward Ryota. The writer-director finally oversteps only in the film’s final third, by reducing the character’s complex life choices to unresolved daddy issues, and then resolving them in a way that feels pat and tacked-on. Just as Ozu made us weep because of the matter-of-fact absence of sentiment, so has Kore-eda succeeded in cutting to the emotional cores of troubled families by eschewing the manipulations of lesser filmmakers — at least until the pedestrian closure of After the Storm.
The movie’s greatest takeaway, then, is not the protag’s cycle toward redemption but the marginal life of his mother. Treatment of the elderly, another central Ozu theme, lingers in the ambient crackle of After the Storm: An overheard news bulletin reports an elderly man gone missing, and Ryota hears of another senior citizen whose corpse was only discovered three weeks after his death.
Could Yoshiko wind up this neglected? That’s the more subtly haunting question of After the Storm, and we certainly hope not. Witty, honest and spiritually searching, Yoshiko is a complicated figure who dreams of a more luxurious life while acknowledging its encroaching twilight. She conspires to bring her son’s family back together, even when she’s smart enough to know better.
And she’s a trove of frugal, Old World practices that are instantly recognizable, like the freezing of milk into little cups of makeshift “ice cream.” As mother and son attempt to enjoy this dessert, tediously chipping away at the inedible top layer of frozen crud with plastic spoons, both characters seem to momentarily forget their troubles. In a movie perhaps too preoccupied with grand conclusions, this small example of communion is one of this early cinema year’s loveliest interludes.
AFTER THE STORM. Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda; Cast: Hiroshi Abe, Yoko Maki, Taiyo Yoshizawa, Kirin Kiki, Satomi Kobayashi; Distributor: Film Movement; Opens Friday at Lake Worth Playhouse and Living Room Theaters at FAU