By Andrew Osmond.
Whether he likes it or not, Hirokazu Koreeda has become the ambassador of contemporary live-action Japanese film in Britain. No other Japanese live-action director has his films released in British cinemas so regularly. Koreeda brings us portraits of ordinary, contemporary Japanese people, of different ages and genders, in dramas where the strongest emotions manifest without violence or theatrics.
A quick way to annoy Koreeda and many of his admirers is to compare him to Yasujiro Ozu, another director who represented Japanese cinema overseas. Koreeda has gently protested he does not have Ozu in mind when he makes his films; he prefers citing directors like Mikio Naruse or indeed Britain’s own Ken Loach. Nonetheless, his film After the Storm brings up such obvious Ozu comparisons that Koreeda must surely be resigned to critics making them… although, according to Sight & Sound, he sighs when Ozu’s name comes up.
After the Storm is a family drama revolving round a middle-aged man, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), who we gradually learn is several things. He’s a divorcee, paying child-support to his former wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki) and he’s only meant to see their young son once a month… though that doesn’t stop him stalking them, especially when he sees Kyoko in another man’s company. Ryota is also supposedly a detective, though lowlife would be more accurate. Rather than chase crime, he and his co-workers are paid by clients to find out if their wives and husbands are cheating on them. After the Storm is one of the very few Japanese films to show a man and a woman in a love hotel with no sexual tension between them whatsoever; they’re just here to listen to what’s happening in the next room.
Ryoto is also a frustrated writer (he had one successful novel fifteen years ago), and a gambling addict, and a son. Ryota’s father has recently died, though his mother (Kirin Kiki) seems serenely unperturbed, disposing of her husband’s possessions to clear a little space in her cramped apartment. The mother is the film’s other lynchpin, from the leisurely first scene of Ryota visiting her home. His irascible comments to her don’t mask his warm rapport with her, while his mother’s replies reveal both her pride and disappointment in him.
Soon the film becomes tragicomic, as Ryota starts making pitiful bids to somehow remain part of the family that he’s lost. We’re not told what exactly triggered his wife to leave him, though the film gives an all-round picture of his failings, which leave him looking immature even next to children. In one scene, for example, he prods his own son for information on his ex’s new boyfriend. In another, Ryota blackmails a high-school boy who’s secretly dating an adult tutor, only to be shocked by the boy’s disgusted judgement of him.
There are many similar half-echoes within the film. For example, Ryota’s mother attends a seniors’ club whose teacher mentions he could have been a TV presenter, had he not been too high-minded about the great composers. We’re not sure if the teacher’s telling the whole truth, but it’s a reminder of the unchangeable life choices that Ryota contemplates wistfully and uselessly. (Ryota, half-jokingly, suggests his mother date the music teacher; she replies that getting more friends at her age only means that she’ll have to go to more funerals.)
Much of the film is told through extended conversations, slowly divulging telling character details. Shots are nearly always static, often set in interiors. The most important scenes take place in Ryota’s mother’s cramped home; Koreeda actually the shot the scenes in the residential complex where he grew up, in the Tokyo suburb of Kiyose. The film’s last act gently contrives a way to get the principal characters to the apartment together at night; a typhoon is blowing, and there’s no easy way to leave. (Typhoons are one of the few things that can shut down Japan’s legendarily efficient transport system.)
The final scenes wryly show characters on utterly different emotional wavelengths, pressed together between tight walls. In one scene, Koreeda’s script seems to steer close to the cliché of the elderly mother as the dispenser of wisdom… only to first undercut the moment with a joke (“I said something deep… Write it down!”) and then more deeply in a counterpointing scene, where we see that Ryota’s mother has the same impossible hopes as her son.
A couple of moments in the film’s last minutes feel hokily misplaced; one involves lottery tickets in the rain, and the other concerns a final revelation about Ryota’s dad. Otherwise, the film is wholly compelling. The performances are excellent, include the understated Maki as Ryota’s ex-wife Kyoko, who poignantly conveys the warm affection she retains for Ryota’s family, but cannot show to Ryota himself. But the film belongs to Abe and Kiki as Ryota and his mother.
All three actors – Maki, Abe and Kiki – have appeared in previous Koreeda films. Kiki, in fact, is now a Koreeda regular, with After the Storm being her fourth role in four consecutive films. (She was in 2011’s I Wish, 2013’s Like Father, Like Son and 2015’s Our Little Sister). But After the Storm harks especially to an earlier Koreeda film, Still Walking (2008); this also had Kiki and Abe as mother and son, and feels like a companion to After the Storm, though the characters are plainly different.
Decades ago, the director Ozu made his thematically-linked “Noriko trilogy” (Late Spring, Early Summer and Tokyo Story) which featured recurring actors and echoing stories. After Still Walking and After the Storm, when should we expect Koreeda’s part three?
After the Storm is released in the UK by Arrow Academy.