A young divorced dad tries to get back into the good graces of his ex-wife and son in After the Storm (Umi yori mo mada fukaku), a classic Japanese family drama of gentle persuasion and staggering simplicity from Kore-eda Hirokazu. As sweet as a ripe cherry at first glance, it has a rocky pit, as viewers who bite deeply will find out. More casual audiences may not even perceive it. This bittersweet peek into the human comedy has a more subtle charm than flashier films like the director’s child-swapping fable Like Father, Like Son, but the filmmaking is so exquisite and the acting so calibrated it sticks with you.
The theme, which is spelled out several times, is that you can’t always have the life you want, or be who you want to be. That sounds sad enough, but it’s a fact that has to be accepted by the good-hearted but befuddled characters whose families have come apart at the seams. The grandfather has just died and his wife of 50 years (veteran actress Kiki Kilin in a thoroughly mischievous mood) wastes no time throwing his things out of their small apartment in a housing complex. He never gave her the life she wanted, or the deluxe three-bedroom lodgings on the “rich” side of the park. Now it’s too late. All this comes out in a joshing, light-hearted chat with her grown daughter as they fix a meal together in her cramped kitchen.
The main story belongs to Ryota, played by Kore-eda regular Abe Hiroshi (Thermae Romae). With his whimsical, good-looking face, lanky body and disheveled wardrobe, he could have stepped out of a modern Italian comedy. Ryota is a prize-winning novelist who hasn’t published anything for 15 years. Under the guise of doing research on his next novel, he works in a private detective agency run by a cagey Lily Franky without overly investing himself in terms of time or effort. This affords several moments of humor when he and his young sidekick slouch around town on a case.
Mostly he pines for his ex, the pretty Kyoko (Like Father, Like Son’s Maki Yoko) and his 12-year-old son Shingo (TV actor Yoshizawa Taiyo.) Spying on them with the help of his young detective-partner, he learns Kyoko is dating a pompous but well-off suitor who is insinuating himself into Shingo’s life. With the help of his sharp-tongued but loving mother he makes one last stab at getting back together with Kyoko and Shingo.
Ryota and Kyoko seem made for each other, if only his personality weren’t so dreamy and immature, and hers so anxious and hard. Like his late father, he is an inveterate small-time gambler, a deeply ingrained habit that has ruined his family life. Whenever he earns some cash selling compromising photos to divorce-hungry husbands or wives, he immediately loses it at the bicycle racetrack or the nearest pachinko parlor. Any other film would introduce some major turnaround that would bring Ryota to his senses and make him reform on the spot. Kore-eda does bring in a small typhoon, the 24th of the year in that location, but the tempest leads to a quiet, realistic finale.
The story is beautifully balanced between gentle comedy and the melancholy reality of how people really are. Leopards are not going to change their spots, and each of the characters is shown to have fixations they can’t shake off, even when it means their dreams will remain unfulfilled. The peremptory way Kyoko demands “my 100,000 yen” for child support reveals her attachment to money. Granny is a warmer, more generous soul, but she often cuts her kids down to size with sharp remarks that belittle them.
Even little Shingo seems to have his destiny laid out for him after Dad introduces him to the excitement of gambling on lottery tickets. Yoshizawa plays him a little introverted, as though hesitantly waiting for an invitation to come out of his shell and start living. Ryota does that for him. Maybe Shingo will even aspire to become a writer; like his dad, he prefers not to play the hero and hit a home run, but to draw a walk to home base, and one has to admire that consistency of character.
J-pop and folk singer Hanaregumi accompanies the often non-stop dialogue with a lilting soundtrack of popular music and songs with a local feel.
Production company: Aoi Pro, Inc.
Cast: Abe Hiroshi, Maki Yoko, Yoshizawa Taiyo, Kiki Kilin, Lily Franky, Hashizume Isao
Director, screenwriter: Kore-eda Hirokazu
Producers: Matsuzaki Kaoru, Yose Akihiko, Taguchi Hijiri
Executive producers: Ishihara Takashi, Kawashiro Kazumi, Fujiwara Tsugihiko, Tom Yoda
Director of photography: Yamazaki Yutaka
Production designer: Mitsumatsu Keiko
Editor: Kore-eda Hirokazu
World sales: Gaga, Wild Bunch
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)