This is breathtaking cinema which renders the quotidian extraordinary.
My father was a charismatic storyteller, ever able to delight a room by twisting a yarn with inimitably magical agility. He was also profligate with money, often scuffling to make child support payments, and ever jealous at the thought that my stepfather was enjoying the idyllic life he had always imagined for himself. He was a paradoxical figure, at once immediately lovable and enduringly frustrating. In the end, most people seem to have remembered—he passed away a decade ago—his positive features. My siblings and I view him as an unlucky character beaten down by circumstance and his unique personality.
The protagonist of After the Storm is achingly similar to my father. Shinoda Ryôta (Hiroshi Abe) is an always-broke part-time private investigator who just happens to also be unceasingly charming and a master storyteller. In fact, 15 years prior to the events in the film, he won a prize for his debut novel. But he has yet to pen a follow-up and is now a gambling addict and deadbeat dad persistently without money in his pockets. In spite of his obvious and numerous flaws, director Hirokazu Koreeda understands that the audience is going to pull for Ryôta to prevail: he is the epitome of the hero-despite-himself.
Around the misadventures of Ryôta, Koreeda has crafted a beautiful and engaging film about family, adulthood and the inevitable disappointment of the imagined future becoming the all-too-real present. Koreeda is often burdened by critics considering him the heir of Ozu, but After the Storm shows that he can match such unfair expectations. He presents here a set of characters so fully realized that the film seems like a documentary simply capturing them living their actual lives, a production design so detailed and full of life that the backdrops to each scene truly feel like the places these characters populate in real life and the story one that is at once universal and highly particular. This is breathtaking cinema which renders the quotidian extraordinary.
Ryôta, pretending to be the noble son, begins the film by visiting his newly-widowed mother, Shinoda Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki)—who is sharply hilarious throughout the film—ostensibly to help her adjust to life without a husband. But really, he has come to pilfer some of his father’s valuables to pawn them so he can have money to spend betting on bicycle races at the local velodrome. He then spies on his ex-wife and son as they spend time with her new boyfriend, makes a few dollars solving a case for a client, wastes all his newfound money at the track and begs his sister for some funds. In each instance, he beguiles and delights the audience, establishing the pattern of the film—heartening conversation or action followed by stupid fuck-up, rinse and repeat.
Koreeda is not a filmmaker who creates large set pieces or generates stimulating action sequences. Even when his plots crescendo, the pinnacle remains subtle. In After the Storm, the climax involves the eponymous storm, a typhoon bearing down on Japan. The scheming Ryôta has contrived a Wile E. Coyote-esque plan to entrap his ex-wife and son at his mother’s apartment during the violent weather, where he has also pinpointed a likely stash of money he can loot. By his reckoning, after the storm will be a moment of triumph where he has both reconstituted his nuclear family and filled his pockets. Surely he then intends to make his prodigal return to fiction-writing fame.
Obviously, this scheme does not come off. His intentions are immediately transparent so that his efforts to win over his ex-wife have no chance of success, Yoshiko’s barbs and charms are a force of nature rivaling the typhoon and Ryôta himself has an unpleasant epiphany about the man he has become. Ryôta realizes he is the same sort of father his now-deceased father was, which is shattering for him as he did not like his father. Even still, the typhoon and his ill-conceived plan do provide him with touching moments with his son, his mother and his ex-wife. Further, the storm has taken a man who spends his life reminiscing about past glories or bragging of future successes and forced him to instead consider his present moment. The next morning, when the storm has passed, things are different. It seems that Ryôta is a new man; perhaps he will become a good parent and a steady professional. Or, just as likely, he will return to his penurious lifestyle. Either way, the audience will cheer him as the hero.