After the Storm Review
Family life often takes a central role in Hirokazu Koreeda’s films, yet it isn’t always the most conventional. From runaway parents (Nobody Knows, 2004), to siblings no-one knew about (Our Little Sister, 2015), to a horrible decision that impacts the lives of two brothers (I Wish, 2011), Koreeda casts a starkly poignant eye over these difficult situations and the people having to deal with them, as well as the unexpected changes they often bring. However with Koreeda’s trademark Ozu-like restraint, each of his stories play out in a quietly realistic way, the great writer-director turning these scenarios into perfectly relatable moments, and making us question just what a ‘normal’ family is anyway.
Divorce is the very literal breaking point the family in After the Storm (2016) are dealing with when we meet them – a life changing event that is often another prominent feature of Koreeda’s films. And while this permanent ending impacts all of the family in different ways, it is divorced dad Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) who seems the most affected by it. An author who has never been able to recreate the success of his first book, Ryota is stuck in a seedy job as a private detective, striving to make enough money to pay child support so he can reconnect with his son Shingo (Taiyô Yoshizawa). His relationship with his own recently deceased father only makes him all the more determined to do so, a man who was constantly disappointed in him and who never approved of his writing. And yet as Koreeda’s story unfolds, we learn that Ryota is also his own worst enemy here, pawning anything he can get his hands on and gambling away his hard-earned wages, jeopardising his chances at ever seeing Shingo again. The fact that Ryota’s father was also a terrible gambler only proves that the past may sadly be about to repeat itself.
This hint of underlying darkness is the powerful core at After the Storm’s centre, an aspect that turns what could have been a maudlin story into something brutally honest and therefore grippingly real. However Koreeda is careful to never overstep the mark, ensuring subtlety is maintained so he can show both sides of the story, never directly judging Ryota and his decisions, no matter how dubious they may be. After all, life is rarely as black and white as we want it to be: this is why Koreeda always focuses on the greys. Hiroshi Abe’s perfectly hangdog performance also prevents Ryota from becoming someone at odds with the audience, the anguish on his face revealing how the choices he makes often seem to occur by his inability to move on, his father’s own gambling problem looming large over him but still never warning him against his actions. His situation is thrown into an even harsher light when compared to that of his mother’s (Kirin Kiki – riveting as always), who is already looking ahead to what comes after the death of her husband – mournful yet still hopeful at what life has to offer her now.
While Koreeda’s presence as a director might not be felt throughout After the Storm, even in these foreboding moments, it is only because he chooses not to be. Rather he lets everything play out against a static camera, allowing his brilliant characters to come to life through these exhilarating performances, all of which speak volumes in unexpected ways. Everyday household scenes become fascinating and suddenly significant for their elusive hints at characterisation, expertly building into the main part of the story and adding to Koreeda’s rich themes of loss, regret, and the father-son bond. Similar to his other films, this understated approach results in some of the most unexpectedly beautiful and heartbreaking pieces of cinema you’ll see for a long time – moments that take you by complete surprise when they emerge amongst the normalcy of it all. One such highlight is a scene between Ryota and his ex-wife (Yôko Maki) that is filled with quiet pain and regret, which both of them feel for very different reasons. However it is a later moment with the great Kirin Kiki that is the most memorable, so expressive and deeply heartfelt that it almost trumps the film’s conclusion, which is itself a strangely melancholic joy.
While it will come as no surprise to those familiar with Koreeda that he is able to create works of this calibre, After the Storm is his most mature work to date, a profound beauty that draws you in without you ever realising it. Poignant, compelling and stunningly realistic, this is a reminder of how masterful filmmaking is able to turn a simple story into a rich, living and breathing tapestry.