After the Storm (2016) - A Sublime Drama on Life’s Inevitability and Wasted Potential

By Arun Kumar

Featured in IMDb Critic Reviews

After the Storm (2016), Poster

We often seek for the extraordinary in cinema that the visuals of ordinary may turn to be quite insipid. Many hate to see movies reflecting the mundanity of life. But, we all don’t watch films just as a means for escape; we watch graceful cinematic works with the power to change our views (in little ways) on the quotidian existence. Japanese writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda is one of the best contemporary film-makers to turn the ordinary to something very beautiful and emotionally arresting. His movies always leave an aftertaste; the more we contemplate, the more we understand the deeper sense of life.  He has definitely altered my perspective of the uneventful everyday life. Like the old Japanese masters Ozu or Naruse (although their themes & film-form are different), he subtly observes the changing dynamics of familial life.

Kore-eda’s instantly endearing drama Still Walking (2008) is one of the best works of his career. It was his most personal film to date. Still Walking offers an achingly humanistic portrait of Yokoyamas, following the ebb and flow of their life in 24 hours of a family gathering. Kore-eda stated that he wrote the script as a tribute to his late mother. Adult males’ regret of failing of live up to his parents’ expectations is one of recurrent themes in Kore-eda’s film. It was strongly represented with a personal touch through the son character (played by Hiroshi Abe -- an alter ego for the director). At one point in the narrative, unable to fulfill his parents’ desires while they were living, Abe’s character says, “It’s always like that. I’m always a little late”. In an interview to filmmaker magazine, Mr. Kore-eda confides that during the shooting of Nobody Knows (2004) his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. He says he had the chance to be with her only when she was hospitalized in the later stages. The personal regret and the conversations he had within himself led to the making of Still Walking, one of the best family dramas ever made.  

A still from the film's opening scene. Kore-eda showcases the mother-daughter bond and through their conversation playfully introduces our central character Ryota
A still from the film's opening scene. Kore-eda showcases the mother-daughter bond and through their conversation playfully introduces our central character Ryota
Kore-eda’s latest film After the Storm also has few personal elements. The mother and son pair of Still Walking – Hiroshi Abe and Kirin Kiki – plays similar roles, confirming a thematic link between these two films. After the Storm is also about a middle-aged son, who bears the shame of letting down his parents. However, the Hiroshi Abe’s son character in this film is a more of a desperate, phony guy, unlike the character he played in Still Walking. Abe plays Ryota, a prize winning novelist who is finding it hard to live up to the success of his first novel. The novel’s title – The Empty Table – seems to indicate his existence after writing that novel. Ryota works part-time for detective agency, snooping on adulterous couples and doing some shady deals. He feeds the little money he earns to his gambling addiction. He is divorced and two months behind to pay for child support. Ryota’s hard-working ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki) has arrived at a decision that their 11 year old son Shingo (Toyota Yoshizawa) would fare better without seeing his father. Kyoko has also started dating a surefooted office worker. Ryota knows this and follows them around with his young colleague (Ikematsu).

Ryota despised his father when he was alive. The father also had a gambling addiction and gave a hard time to his wife (Kirin Kiki) – the wise mother. The mother lives in a confined public housing complex (Kore-eda once lived in this particular housing complex) and Ryota rarely visits her, except when he is desperate enough to sponge off some money from her. Ryota’s levelheaded sister knows her brother’s schemes very well, although she also seeks the mother’s help now and then. Ryota decides to make one last effort to be a good father and definitely vies for Shingo’s love & respect. TV and radio stations announce the arrival of 24th tornado of the year. A storm may help the broken family to stick together. Ryota takes Shingo to have nice outing. He buys him new shoes and takes him to pay a visit to his warm-hearted mother (Shingo adores his grandmother that he has written an essay about her for a school project). And, as the storm approaches, Kyoko also happens to make it to the apartment complex. As always simple things happen & the characters make simple observations. Nevertheless, similar to all of Kore-eda’s works, these simple things come together to offer something paradoxically complex or touchingly lifelike.

Director Kore-eda is so brilliant and nuanced in drawing us to the characters’ domestic space. Unlike the spacious family house in Still Walking, the housing complex in After the Storm is so compact. Characters have to bow down or move forward or sideways to share the space.  A little moving of the tangerine plant breaks the glass in the door; a character reflexively moves as the fridge door is opened; Ryota’s mother to briefly escape from the heat of constrained space opens the fridge to let in some coolness. These little movements or gestures may seem to be nothing. But, I felt such small things take us closer to the space occupied by the humane characters. Kore-eda subtly instills a sense of grounded nature or genuine, warm humor through the observation of domestic spaces. The underlying misery of the housing complex is suggested by old people living alone or dying out; Kirin Kiki’s mother character, in fact, serves as a perfect counter to this misery. She is trapped inside the domestic space, yet her traditional cooking methods and poignant love for family members seems to be exact opposite of Ryota’s self-destructive conduct. 

One of Kore-eda’s fascinating qualities is perceiving humans with their own set of imperfections. While most film-makers take few imperfections and blow them out to dramatic proportions, Kore-eda humanizes the imperfections in a way that we somehow relate or even see ourselves in the characterizations. When Ryota laments, “It is hard to grow to be a man you wanted to be”, we don’t just pity him; we reflect on it and take it as the hardest truth. Kore-eda’s characters derive emotional catharsis by confronting the hard truths of everyday life. By spending a couple of hours with them, we too get a least-sentimental, yet a highly cathartic movie experience. The reason for such a profound experience lies in the manner Kore-eda develops each character, giving them the space to organically develop a point-of-view. Except for the wealthy boyfriend of Kyoko, every little character was beautifully realized with their own perspective on life. They all seem to harp on the two vital themes in the film: nature or nurture question and life’s inevitable dissatisfaction and defeats. Of course, there are no neatly-packaged resolutions; there’s only sad acceptance. But through the acceptance of inevitable disappointments, Kore-eda also infuses a solemn ‘life goes on’ tone.

Ryota’s old mother wonders “Why men can’t ever love the present?” It’s a very profound question contemplating our (men’s) obsession with the idea of ourselves, legacy, etc. It’s also a very Japanese question, brooding on the nation’s heavy concern for lineage. The film’s English title plus the image of shiny, blue sky (or the rise of new dawn) after the night of storm may seem to be a showy metaphor for the get-together of broken family. However, Kore-eda films are anything but showy. The bright morning after the storm doesn’t say that everything is resolved; it confides how the members of family have come to accept their new situation. Towards the end, when the typhoon blows Shingo’s lottery tickets, the family of three searches for the damp lottery tickets. They come together and find some, yet few tickets go missing. Similarly, Ryota, Kyoko and Shingo may now respect and love each other, but something’s missing (like a small piece of a jigsaw puzzle) to stop them from going back as a family unit. Eventually, we don’t attain sadness from Ryota’s predicament. We only hope -- whatever good and bad traits he derived from his father -- that he finely makes it through the rest of life.

As usual, Kore-eda derives the best, low-key performances from his actors. Veteran actress Kirin Kiki’s wisecracking comments, nervous laughs, and self-aware nature in reprising the elderly mother role evokes the memory of our good-natured grandmothers. Look at her teary-eyed expression when Shingo says that if he wins money from the lottery tickets, grandmother could live in the same house as him; or when she joyously runs to prepare the room for the family’s night stay. Kiki’s emotions are so genuine that (despite lot of social or cultural differences), I could see my late grandmother in her character. The conversation Kiki has with Abe’s son character during the storm couldn’t be just locked under a superlative adjective; it’s beyond that. The nuanced performances of all these actors depict how simple truths could be so cleansing & deep than an escalated dramatic payout. 

After the Storm (117 minutes) may not be the best work of Kore-eda till date, but like a great artist, he marvelously rehashes the familiar elements to offer something refreshing and new. 

After the Storm (2016) Trailer

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