After the Storm is difficult to explain, and easy to celebrate. Hirokazu Koreeda, who wrote and directed the film, creates situations and characters that have been in fiction for centuries. What makes his film unique – and such a rewarding drama – is the way he creates them. His drama is gentle, with characters who avoid flowery speeches and intense histrionics. The editing and camera placement create an immersive feeling, as if we’re a houseguest in the apartment where most of the film takes place. While this technique is gentle, it is never boring, since Koreeda takes broad archetypes and imbues them with enough specificity so that the material is welcoming, not familiar. It is rare for a film this understated to be so absorbing.
Hiroshi Abe plays Ryôta, a fortyish man with striking features. When we first meet him, he wanders into the apartment belonging to his mother Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki). His father recently passed away, and he’s looking for a valuable heirloom. At first, Ryôta seems responsible and confident, but then we spend more time with him and realize he is a loser. His first novel was a modest success, and now he struggles to make ends meet (he says he works as a private eye for “research,” except he mostly needs the cash). He spies on his ex-wife Kyôko (Yôko Maki) and his son Shingo (Taiyô Yoshizawa) because Kyôko only allows monthly visits. One easy topic of conversation is an upcoming typhoon, although no one treats it with much alarm. It is given about as much attention as the typical weather conversation, and Yoshiko quietly plans to use the storm as an opportunity for reconciliation.
Most of After the Storm takes place in a modest, working class apartment complex. Koreeda shoots with natural light and intuitive camera placement, avoiding master shots so we never quite get a sense of any one place’s dimensions. This is meant for something deeper than mere claustrophobia: the characters’ lives seem bursting with stuff, as if no space is big enough to contain them. In fact, Yoshiko’s apartment has masterful production design because everything is so thoughtfully placed. When she first chats with Ryôta, they do not discuss anything important. They argue about leftovers in the fridge, and whether he should stay for dinner. Koreeda carefully conflates text and subtext, so we come to see the deeper unhappiness that informs all his characters. Everyone wants to do right by each other, except Ryôta also drinks and likes to gamble. No one raises their voice over Ryôta’s weaknesses, and instead treats them as a sad obstacle.
Many scenes in After the Storm could be played for high melodrama, or even suspense. There is an ongoing subplot involving Ryôta’s private detective work. He photographs two sides of married couple in compromised positions, playing one spouse against another, and yet the film never opts for anything even resembling a thriller (the film’s music, which is infrequent, is a shabby horn score that undercuts any sense of high drama). The overarching theme, one that pervades nearly every scene, is the intersection between tolerance and forgiveness. Ryôta, Kyôko, and everyone else accept their basic natures. The tension, insofar that the film has any, is whether this acceptance means their relationship can involve beyond its current plateau. Sure, there is some scheming so that Ryôta, Kyôko, and Shingo can be a family again. Koreeda is wise enough to let his characters see through it immediately, without any resentment, and consider it an opportunity instead.
Koreeda’s past films have been minor art-house hits. Nobody Knows and Still Walking have the same quiet confidence, and even many of the same actors. Hiroshi Abe also stars in Still Walking, and here is similarly well-cast here. He has leading man looks, except with shabby hair and the gait of someone who lost all his confidence. A running joke in After the Storm is how he deals with the indignity of smaller and smaller spaces, until finally his ex and son drag him into the open spaces of the other side. This is a film where anyone can relate to at least one character, whether it’s the lonely grandmother, and alienated son, the frustrated mother, or the hapless father. Life has a thousand little deaths, and indeed so do all families. After the Storm has the wisdom to see love and tenderness can help smooth them over, even when the differences have been irreconcilable for far too long.