After the Storm is a sweet and melancholic film about one of the most pathetic deadbeats put to film in recent years.
Full Disclosure: This review was made possible thanks to a screener from the film’s UK distributor, Arrow Films.
Japanese society is very traditional. Even by the standards of our patriarchal society, Japan is super traditional and very heavily regimented. Standardised tests that you take in your early teens which decide which higher schools you are allowed to enter can determine your whole life all on their own. The father, or the closest equivalent, is expected to support the family, to provide the most stable income, to be the bedrock for the rest of the group. This runs back to the traditional Japanese system of honour and respecting one’s elders, that sanctifying and respectfulness of tradition and their own cultural history, and it implants an often quietly self-destructive sense of pride that can stonewall any attempts at help from others or cries for said in the face of those societal expectations.
Therefore, when one does collapse in the face of that societal pressure, for one reason or another, the damage is not just limited to the one man. It keeps a loving wife trapped in a tiny apartment she thought would merely be a transitional space prior to her dream of owning a real house, it forces a daughter to have to pick up after everybody else and develop a hypocritical self-interest that makes her distrusting of her own relatives, and it can turn a talented young man into the spitting image of his deadbeat father through the latter’s corrupting influence. Of course, the line separating one’s own faults and reasons for being a washout from those brought upon by their father’s is a fine one, and at a certain point one has to maybe stop wasting their paycheques on their crippling gambling addictions and take some goddamn responsibility for once.
And so it is that we are introduced to After the Storm’s Ryota (Hiroshi Abe). Once a promising, award-winning novelist with a loving wife, Kyoko (Yōko Maki), and young son, Shingo (Taiyô Yoshizawa), Ryota has become quite the deadbeat throughout the past few years. His current job, which he very unconvincingly tries to claim is merely “research” for his next barely-plotted-out novel, is part of a shady private detective agency that rats on cheating spouses for a living. It pays decently enough, enough to fulfil his child support payments to his now ex-wife, the one he spends his days stalking in order to get dirt on her new man, except that he always, without fail, turns right around and blows the lot on his gambling addiction. He extorts schoolchildren, tries to pawn his recently-deceased father’s knick-knacks from his bereaved mother, Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki), for more gambling money, and otherwise seems wholly incapable of taking any personal responsibility for his actions whatsoever, content to keep perpetuating the cycle and finding any number of other excuses for his behaviour.
Ryota is the kind of character who might, if this were a Western film, have been either totally and loudly condemned for his commitment to breaking new ground in the realm of “deadbeat dad,” or been loudly apologised for as some kind of tragic protagonist that we should feel all the sympathies for and root to succeed against his worst vices – mostly inherited from his own dad, who first introduced him to gambling at a young age. Instead, and this is also rather par for the course with writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda (Still Walking, Our Little Sister), After the Storm takes a more reserved and melancholic approach. It doesn’t pretend that Ryota is some kind of pure-hearted soul done wrong, but nor does it throw scorn upon the man, either. Instead, it treats him as the pathetic twerp he so very often is, a man so hung up on the past and how his current life is nothing like the one he envisioned that he just can’t see why he’s in the situation he’s found himself. He frequently borrows money from his PI partner to blow on more gambling machines because, in his own mind that he’s also managed to convince his partner, he really does just want to see his son again and this really is the best way to make the money required to make that happen.
If anything, Kore-eda seems to pity Ryota, or perhaps that’s just because, much like his other films, he refuses to raise the dramatic possibilities to anything above a light simmer. Kore-eda makes sweet and weirdly soothing films, which is a trend that After the Storm does not come anywhere close to breaking. The film’s second hour traps Ryota, Kyoko, and Shingo at Yoshiko’s house during a typhoon, and despite one moment where it seems like everything could blow up – let’s just say that Ryota takes after his dad in every aspect other than being a decent enough liar to get away with it – nothing ever does. Characters don’t redeem themselves or complete their arcs through grand actions or large monologues, but rather via simple dialogue exchanges and minor actions that indicate that maybe they’ll finally turn things around this time. It’s a quiet and intimate film, helped by Koreeda having finally hired a damn tripod after Our Little Sister; fixing his camera into place rather than having it randomly dart around the scene is much more befitting his narrative style.
That deliberately minor approach towards any dramatic conflict is probably what keeps After the Storm from being truly outstanding, in my eyes, but its cross-cultural yet still specifically-Japanese approach to its central character is strong enough to make it a must-watch. It’s a film that doesn’t treat menial – for as much as the kind of work that Ryota does for a day job is “menial,” anyway – work as some kind of grand failure, dreams not being realised as a matter of fact that’s nothing to be particularly ashamed of, and that taking responsibility for one’s own life and actions does not begin with a grand gesture but instead simple acceptance. At one point, Ryota reminisces on what he initially wanted to be in life, before the novelist thing took off, and his answer mirrors that of Shingo’s now: civil servant. In the same stretch of day, Ryota buys Shingo his first set of lottery tickets. That kind of near-self-awareness followed by descent into blind-ignorance, particularly since Ryota decries ever wanting to be like his old man, is neither endearing but nor is it scornful. It’s honestly mostly pathetic, especially since, as After the Storm eventually concludes, breaking the habit and trying to make something of yourself starts simply by finally having that moment of clarity.
It’s a sweet movie, soothing to watch in a good way, and stacked with great performances from top to bottom – Hiroshi Abe is the obvious candidate for singling out, given how utterly insufferable Ryota could have been if he hadn’t found the exact right level to pitch his performance at, but Kirin Kiki turns out to quietly be the soul of the entire film. If it’s not Kore-eda’s best work, that doesn’t mean that he isn’t improving his filmmaking; seriously, switching to mostly static and composed shots has done wonders for the feel of this film. After the Storm is one of my film highlights of the year so far, and you should absolutely check it out.
After the Storm will be released in UK cinemas this Friday (June 2nd).