After the Storm has most of the elements that have established director Hirokazu Kore-eda as a master of the family drama, but they don’t quite gel due largely to some characterisation deficiencies.
Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda is a favourite at the Perth Film Festival, and for good reason. He is a master of the quietly unfolding family drama (eg: I Wish (2012), Like Father, Like Son (2013), and last year’s delightful Our Little Sister). There is a lovely gentleness to his work, which is character-driven and informed by astute and detailed observation of human nature and interaction. His films are not without narrative structure, but the characters predicate the action (whatever there is of it). There’s the sense that he gives his actors a lot of room to explore their roles, with extraordinary naturalism the result. This naturalism co-exists with a visual lyricism – Kore-eda fuses realism with the poetic, creating indelible moments of great beauty out of his characters’ experiences (the perfect sibling harmony so wonderfully captured in the moving final scene of Our Little Sister springs to mind).
Most of the elements that make Kore-eda great are present in After the Storm, but they don’t quite gel – something is missing. I hate to say that. I am a devoted fan, dating from the heartwrenching Nobody Knows (2004). On learning that Kore-eda considers After The Storm his seminal work, I was expecting great things, which makes my luke-warm response all the more personally disconcerting. So, what’s gone wrong here?
I’ve put myself through the wringer trying to work that out, and have concluded that Kore-eda’s greatest strength – his characterisation – doesn’t measure up in After the Storm. In all his other films, at least those I’ve seen, he demonstrates empathy for his focal characters, manifest in their nuanced, well-integrated personalities. They are complex, as people are in real life. There is a great sense of humanity about them, and about Kore-ada’s work generally. We pick up on this; we understand and often identify with his characters, and thus enjoy their strengths, recognise their dilemmas, forgive their flaws. It is as if we are gazing into a great crystal-clear pool of humanity, seeing shimmering aspects of ourselves and those we know reflected back at us.
The richness and complexity Kore-eda typically brings to his characters are strangely absent from Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), the 40-something lead in After the Storm. Ryota hasn’t grown up. He’s the worst sort of Peter Pan – without charm, self-serving, unprincipled, dishonest and irresponsible. Once a successful writer, he has long ago lost his mojo and now ekes out a sleazy living as a private detective. He squanders his meagre income gambling. He limply carries a torch for his ex-wife Kyoko (Yôko Maki), but evidently doesn’t care enough about her or his young son (Taiyo Yoshizawa), whom he neglects, to keep up his maintenance payments. (Incidentally, Kore-eda also neglects the son, who is not developed beyond sketch. This is a puzzling lapse from a director whose filmic treatment of children is usually exquisite, and diminishes the emotional stakes for the viewer of Ryota’s attempts to get closer to the boy.).
Despicably, when visiting his aged and recently widowed mother (the irresistibly endearing Kirin Kiki), Ryota rifles through her apartment in search of cash and items of his father’s, which he hocks. He has a competitor – his equally unappealing and similarly inclined sister, who leaves him a triumphant “beat ya” note at the bottom of a stocking in which their mother had secreted her savings.
The poor old mother chides Ryota for neglecting his son, and when reflecting frankly on her late husband’s lesser qualities suggests that he’s a chip off the old block. This is the only clue we are given as to how Ryota came to be the way he is. It’s not enough. Denied a better understanding of his formative years, it is difficult to feel much sympathy for him. He comes across merely as a jerk. The nuanced and multi-faceted characterisation we expect from Kore-eda just isn’t there.
Ryota’s mother wants nothing more than to be surrounded by family, and for him to reconcile with his ex-wife. With the three of them visiting her as a typhoon approaches, the mother seizes the opportunity to extend the fractured family’s time together and insists they stay the night.
Things don’t go well. Kyoko is understandably contemptuous of Ryota, and when he makes a half-hearted sexual advance, she confirms she has moved on to a new relationship. Ryota’s juvenile response – “Have you done it with him yet?” – evokes a caustic reply from Kyoko: “What do you think? We’re not teenagers.”
Ryota finds some redemption in the best and most touching scene of the film, a beautifully managed bonding session that takes place when he and his son go out during the typhoon and shelter within a tubular womb-like structure in a nearby playground. When Kyoko joins them, the family picture is once again complete, albeit temporarily. There’s a poignant sense of intimacy to this scene, which recalls Kore-eda at his best.
However, it’s too little, too late. While any Kore-eda film is worth making an effort to see, After the Storm is under-powered emotionally and falls short of the stellar standards he has set with his other works.
I should point out that this assessment is at odds with most other reviewers (the film currently has a 100% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes). You can only speak as you find.
Movie website: http://www.wildbunch.biz/movie/after-the-storm/ (original title Umi yori mo Mada Fukaku)
After the Storm screening dates (2016-17 Lotterywest Perth Film Festival):
UWA Somerville: Mon 12–Sun 18 Dec 2016, 8pm
ECU Joondalup Pines: Tue 20–Sat 24 Dec 2016, 8pm
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