In the Japanese film "After the Storm," a radio forecast of a gathering tropical cyclone marks an early scene. Having grown up in the tropics, I equate typhoon warnings with images of torrential rains, howling winds, power outages and flash floods. My instant thought was that cataclysmic drama was going to make a landfall on the character arc.
But this is the latest work of acclaimed director Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose filmic signature is the subtle and small-scale character study in the tradition of the late Japanese film auteur Yasujiro Ozu. Kore-eda's films, "Still Walking" (2008), "Like Father, Like Son" (2013) and "Our Little Sister" (2015), among others, are intimate, gentle observations of the joys and challenges of ordinary people in the quotidian rhythms of their lives. By all indications, this is not going to be the perfect storm.
We follow the life of Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) in the outskirts of Tokyo. He is a one-time awarded novelist who, to save face, spreads fictions about the near completion of his nonexistent sophomore novel. De facto, he ekes out a living from part-time detective assignments and blackmailing his surveillance targets; what little he earns, he squanders on gambling.
Lost in an overextended midlife crisis and divorced from his wife, Kyoko (Yoko Maki), he had been delinquent in providing child support for Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa), his young son. Though good-humored and seemingly chill, Ryota is weighted down by an invisible sign that he wears around his neck like a scarlet letter: "L" for "loser." His slouched posture and hangdog expression belie his tall frame and chiseled good looks. The film's musical punctuation, a playful piano-and-whistle, suggests that he has the makings of a puer aeternus, a man-child.
With unobtrusive camerawork, the story unfolds patiently like the layers of an onion carefully peeled. In one scene, Ryota is digging through stuff in the cramped apartment of Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki), his elderly mother, who happens to not be home. He is scrounging around for things of value his recently deceased father might have left behind, but save for some pawn certificates, he finds nothing and thoughtlessly takes a bite from a rice cake offered to his father at the family altar.
Yoshiko arrives, almost catching her son's pilfering. A diminutive, gray-haired woman full of pep and witty humor, she derives some enjoyment in taking potshots at her departed husband, who, based on her unflattering jabs, was very much the rock from which Ryota was hewn. She dotes over her middle-aged son like he was still her little boy but pulls no punches in dispensing good-natured matriarchal admonition. "You're taking too long to bloom," she exclaims. "Hurry up or I'll haunt you!"
Looking back at some early memories as a family, Yoshiko recalls the time when, in the face of a typhoon, they had sought shelter in a church. Ryota fondly remembers visiting that same church in the mornings, when the stained-glass windows shone beautifully. The film would have been predictable had it cashed in on the symbolic connection between the stained-glass window and the hope of dream fulfillment, but almost in the same breath, Ryota accidentally breaks a glass door, a visual rendering of a pivotal line repeated a couple of times in the film — "It shouldn't have turned out this way."
Things take an awkward turn when, during Shingo's visit with his grandma, the typhoon compels the estranged couple to stay there overnight with their son, despite Kyoko's polite protestations. The elderly widow, who had pushed for the idea using every trick of persuasion, is overjoyed; she loses no time in bringing out containers of frozen stew, reconstituting it over a stove and drawing sage-like culinary wisdom — "a stew needs time for the flavors to sink in … so do people."
Interestingly, this is a self-reflexive moment for the actor Kirin Kiki, who plays Yoshiko. A veteran of more than 100 works on television and screen, she only received due international acclaim in her last 10 films. She is easily the heart of "After the Storm," and Kirin allows her expressive face to be a canvas upon which she paints a range of emotions so heartbreakingly real that they could have only come from an inner truth.
As the typhoon rages in the dead of the night, father and son sneak out to a nearby playground to eat cookies under a concrete slide structure garishly shaped like an octopus. They are re-enacting a special childhood memory Ryota once shared with his own father. Soon enough, Kyoko joins them, and, if only for that one moment, they are a family again. At this point, the audience could not help but hope for some conspiracy of grace that would usher the characters into a space safe enough for possible reconciliation. But this is Kore-eda's imperfect storm; it cannot wipe out the indelible marks of a flawed and wounded humanity, though it makes them more real.
It's refreshing to watch a film that doesn't try hard to win you with manipulative plot turns and cinematic artifice but simply presents a small story told by a filmmaker who is a compassionate observer.
In the penultimate scene, the erstwhile family is having fun out in the downpour as they try to retrieve lottery tickets that had fallen out of the boy's pocket. Ryota had given them to him earlier, much to the chagrin of Kyoko, who was irate that he had fed their son the false illusion that one's success depended on a game of chance. But the latter reminds her, "You always win at least 300 yen [about US$2.75] for every ticket," an allusion to the film's moral that life's triumphs do not often come in a windfall but in fragments.
When the typhoon has cleared the next day, we realize with the characters that a graceful ending did happen, albeit in a minor key. Before the storm, they were human; after the storm, a bit more human.
[Precious Blood Br. Antonio D. Sison is associate professor of systematic theology at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, and author of the book The Sacred Foodways of Film (Pickwick, 2016). Showing in select theaters now, "After the Storm" will be available on video in October from Film Movement.]