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Many use the words “deceptively simple” to describe a film which makes what it’s trying to do look easy. However, I don’t think the words apply better to any director than Hirokazu Kore-eda and his invariable slice of the Japanese experience. He’s envisioned it from multiple perspectives, none of which resulted in anything less than fascinating. After the Storm is about a distant son, an estranged father, a lowbrow detective and a washed-up novelist, all of whom happen to be the same person. Ryota Shinoda (played by the proficient Hiroshi Abe) is a whirlwind unto himself. He tends to his recently bereaved mother, in a tender if slightly overbearing relationship, and occasionally gets a visit from his estranged son and embittered ex-wife, who treats him like an unwanted guest.
All of it culminates during a stormy summer night where, in his mother’s apartment, Ryota, his son and ex-wife stay the night and the man’s past failures, his current roles and future legacy are touched upon in what is perhaps Kore-eda’s most cumulatively funniest, eloquently emotive and poignant depiction of a family unit.
Hirokazu Kore-eda normally works with premises that, on paper, sound conceptually unique. And yet he approaches them with such a controlled naturalism anyone could easily mistake his moderation for simplicity. In fact Kore-eda’s naturalist approach feels so simple I often find myself in awe of their humble, self-effacing beauty. All of his films are imbued with what can be fairly described as Japanese customs (just look at how his characters gather around a dinner table), but Kore-eda’s genius is how transcends the normative trappings of his culture. The sheer weight of his domestic depictions are ubiquitous in their power. The dynamics of family are not culture-specific and nor do the character’s emotions feel bound to a specific time or place.
After the Storm’s Ryota Shinoda is one of Kore-eda’s garish and fascinating protagonists. His emotions are showcased on several social dimensions. One is generational, the natural fear of becoming our parents. Ryota, whose father was a gambler, is terrified of the notion that he—despite being more financially well-off—is becoming the same man as him. Even after his father dies does Ryota look back at his legacy with a sneering contempt. Another of these emotions comes from a place of cynicism. As a private detective, Ryota is a sleazy double-crosser who takes money from his clients and blackmails money from that same client’s target—in exchange for destroying evidence incriminating him/her. Ironically, Ryota profits over other people’s mistakes while he seems egregiously in-debt to his own.
Ryota, who is many years divorced, bears a loose bond with his young son—who he desperately wants to form a relationship with. The moments between the two range from strangely (and humorously) endearing to unstintingly profound. Ryota wants to create the type of bond with his son he never had with his father, soon the nature of their relationship becomes a deeper question: is Ryota doing this for his son or for himself? Yet, the bond between the two indisputable. His relationship with his wife Kyoko (Yōko Maki), however, bears only a mere glimpse of an old spark. It can almost be summed up entirely when she tells Ryota (after offering to play a board game with her), “playing The Game of Life with you is like a bad joke.”
Perhaps the most emblematic characteristic of Kore-eda’s entire cinematic output found in After the Storm is simply how good he’s become blocking and framing characters indoors. After the Storm’s best moments are simply its most intimate moments of family interaction between the walls of what he sees as a typical home. Kore-eda finds unforeseen insight in some unexpected moments—for example, Ryota secretly spying on his family from afar becomes a study on the familial mystery that distances family members, and the forces that draw them together. But the simple coziness, even in the tight spaces of the grandmother’s apartment, give Kore-eda’s film an elegant environmental foothold that make his films not only distinctly Japanese, but homespun parables with universal appeal.
Moments only appear small in Kore-eda’s films, but if you find yourself relating to one or two of aspects then, like me, you’ll find yourself appreciating the contextual enormity of Kore-eda’s films in all their moderate, painstakingly simple allure. A simple conversation between Ryota and his son Shingo, about what the boy wants to be when he grows up eventually leads to a question from son to father. “Are you who you wanted to be?” Shingo asks him. Ryota pauses, quietly pondering, allowing enough doubt and hesitation for his reaction to haunt his entire arch in the film. There is nothing outwardly dramatic about Kore-eda or any of his films, but his little moments speak volumes. These days family dramas are either resigned to docile comedies or histrionic shouting matches. Kore-eda finds more efficacy in tiny gestures that compliment the most essential family moments.