The premise sounds like a high-concept, wacky comedy: down on his luck novelist and sometimes private detective follows around his ex-wife to keep tabs on her new boyfriend, while his aging mother engineers a scheme to get the two back together, for the sake of the couple's son. The lead actor even looks the part for broad physical comedy: at 6’2”, Hiroshi Abe literally stands out in any crowd in Japan. But After the Storm was written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-Eda, Japan’s latter day master of the quietly powerful drama. His style is about observing small moments and interactions, building comedy and pathos both out of small human moments.
Ryota, the novelist played by Hiroshi Abe, grew up wanting to be nothing like his father, who has recently died. But as he gets older and as his life becomes less and less like he’d imagined it when he was young, he finds himself falling into his father’s bad habits: gambling and constantly borrowing money without repaying it. His writing career began with great promise, and he won a minor literary award for his first book… but he never followed it up, and now lives alone in a dingy apartment, cheating on his boss at the detective agency by shaking down their clients, and is constantly late on his child support payments.
Besides being taller than everyone else in the film, Hiroshi Abe has an immensely expressive face, one constantly in need of a shave. He has a hangdog expression of constantly repressed pain, which he covers by lying to just about everyone he comes in contact with about how well he’s doing - on his second book, in his detective career, as a concerned parent. What makes him an almost tragic figure is that it is clear that nobody believes him, yet his self-conception is so important that he can’t help himself.
The rest of the cast performs just as ably, in particular Kirin Kiki as Ryota’s mother. Kore-Eda has the ability to coax warm and naturalistic performances from his casts which is frankly not often the case with modern Japanese drama, where histrionics and scenery chewing are often part of the style.
After the Storm is often funny, though always in a low-key way. It is also never in a hurry, allowing for long moments of simply observing behavior. After Ryota is caught at his mom’s home searching every nook and cranny for hidden money, she offers him a frozen lemonade. He complains is has a “refrigerator smell”, then the two of them just dig in, scraping their spoons mostly fruitlessly against the hard frozen top of the desert. When Ryota buys some baseball cleats for his son, he tells him to get the expensive brand, then when taking them to the cash register he surreptitiously scuffs them on some hard stairs, then haggles for a discount on the scuffed merchandise.
Subtextually, Kore-Eda's film is about aging, both personally and as a society. Japan has more old people than children these days, a point that is obliquely brought up more than once. There's plenty of moments of throwaway dialogue about children moving back with their parents. Ostensibly, it's to take care of the aging parents but there's little doubt that it's the children who are less able to get along in life. After the Storm is basically a three generational story, with the Ryota's middle generation filled with adults who never really got where they thought they were going, and life has not stood still for them to regroup.
The plot culminates in Ryota’s estranged ex-wife being stuck with him and their son at Ryota’s mother’s place while a typhoon strikes the area. Ryota aims for a reconciliation, since they’ll be stuck sleeping in the same room. Something like a reconciliation, or at least increased understanding, does occur but nothing like a romantic comedy’s pat “everything’s all right” ending. It’s sad and funny and, above all, human.
This Blu-ray release of After the Storm by Film Movement contains two extras: an unrelated short film called The Last Dream (not directed by Kore-Eda), and an excellent feature length making-of documentary on After the Storm. It’s a fly on the wall style doc, filmed during production which follows Kore-Eda from the pre-planning and location scouting through the actual production itself.