Continuing the theme of gentle slice of life dramas, this week I watched After the Storm (2016) from director Hirokazu Kore-eda. It follows Ryota Shinoda (Hiroshi Abe), an award-winning novelist who has fallen from grace; divorced, estranged from his son, distrusted by by his sister, and struggling to make ends meet as a private detective while squandering half his earnings on gambling. In the midst of typhoon season, Shinoda is trying to piece the fragments of his life together and collect enough cash to pay his overdue alimony before his ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki) withdraws access to their son. What follows is a surprisingly charming cross-section of Shinoda’s life, a film less about him trying to fix what went wrong than simply get out of freefall.
For the most part, After the Storm wears its concerns on its sleeve. One of the central characters is Shinoda’s elderly mother (played gamely by Kirin Kiki, delivering a far livelier performance than her turn in Sweet Bean). Shinoda’s father recently passed away and much of the film sees Shinoda and his sister Chinatsu visiting their mother’s apartment in the wake of that event. Both children distrust each others’ motives, and with good reason: Chinatsu’s daughter’s figure skating lessons are being paid for by her mother, and Shinoda worries the money is coming out of her pension, while Shinoda himself spends every unobserved moment rifling through cabinets looking for family heirlooms to pawn. These moments are played with a kind of good-natured, gentle comedy rather than as grim examples of the exploitation of the elderly. Yet After the Storm is very interested in Japan’s ageing population – it’s a weight that hangs over a lot of Japanese media. It’s not terribly subtle about it either: in one scene, Shinoda and his mother look out from the balcony of her housing complex and remark upon the lack of children playing. Even six or seven years ago when I lived in Japan, children felt like a rare presence, and the demographic situation has only worsened in the intervening years.
The looming presence of the titular typhoon is felt throughout the film. As it opens, we hear radio announcements about the year’s 23rd typhoon. As it closes, we experience the 24th. In between, After the Storm is a wonderfully atmospheric, too hot, too sweaty experience. Everyone involved looks exhausted by the heat. Japan’s sweltering summers are hell to live through but make for great visuals on film, going back to classics like Stray Dog. Despite the long history of Japan dealing with natural disasters through the medium of film – whether through allegorical works like Shin Godzilla or literally in Sion Sono’s Land of Hope – After the Storm never makes the typhoon into too much of a threat. Instead, it’s transformed into a shared experience, with Shinoda recounting how he and his father once snuck into the huge, octopus-shaped slide in the housing complex’s park, spending the night eating snacks by flashlight while sheltered from the wind and rain.
After the Storm feels very much a film about men, written and directed by male director Hirokazu Kore-eda, and perhaps aimed specifically at men – or at least most interested in making observations about the male psyche. It’s Shinoda’s journey throughout. Characters, both male and female, philosophise about the way men react to things. Perhaps one of the most telling lines is when one of Shinoda’s colleagues at the detective agency suggests, “Men only realise they’re in love when they’ve lost their beloved.” Divorced from his wife and estranged from his son, Shinoda is desperate to reconnect with them. Yet as his ex-wife asks, where was this when they were married? Shinoda’s junior partner at the detective agency asks why he never mentioned his family until he got divorced. In another scene, prompted by a client’s intrigues, Shinoda complains that men always imagine affairs (even though in that moment, he’s actually covering up an affair in order to bilk extra money out of a case). He laments that men are getting less and less ‘manly’, and his colleagues agree, pointing out that most stalkers are now men. It’s no accident the film immediately cuts to Shinoda observing his ex-wife at work from the shadows, and later, watching his son’s baseball game through binoculars from a car in the parking lot. It’s clear Shinoda’s ruminations on ‘men’ are more about how he perceives himself than anyone else.
If I have any criticism for the film, it’s that none of the women are as fleshed out as the men (the most richly detailed is probably his mother) but on the other hand, none of the characters are as fleshed out as Shinoda himself. It’s what lends the film the same pseudo-autobiographical air as that of many Japanese novels; indeed, After the Storm could almost be a Haruki Murakami short story, with its novelist-turned-detective and a string of detached women (the only thing missing is the jazz, though there is an incredible musical beat during a sequence where Shinoda tails one of his private investigation subjects). Kore-eda conceived the film in 2001 after his own father died and he visited his mother in just such a housing estate. While it’s not clear how closely Shinoda is modelled on Kore-eda himself, much of the film is drawn from the writer-director’s experience, to the point of being shot on location on the housing complex he lived on between the ages of 9 and 28 in Kiyose, Tokyo.
Despite being driven in a large part by Shinoda’s past, damaged relationship, After the Storm never gets trapped in a romcom scenario where the end goal is the repair of that relationship (nor even the Forgetting Sarah Marshall-esque variation of getting over that relationship by starting another). Instead, the focus slowly shifts to him trying to rebuild the relationship with his young son – vying for affection with Kyoko’s new, far more successful boyfriend and struggling against his own worst instincts to squander both his money and his visitation time on gambling. Gambling is actually quite a large part of the narrative, from betting on cycle racing that looks more like greyhound- or horse-racing than any bicycle sport I’ve ever seen, to wasting time in a pachinko parlour, or amassing lottery tickets. At one point, Shinoda is even offered the job of writing a gambling-based manga for an up and coming artist, but his pride makes him hesitate. I was a little surprised by this, but maybe I shouldn’t have been; even though some manga artists and authors are beloved, he sees it as beneath him as a literary fiction author who once won a breakout prize.
Time and again, characters ask some variation of, “How did my life end up like this?” Shinoda, divorced and indebted. His clients, vying for dirt on their spouses to ‘win’ divorce battles. His mother, alone in her housing complex apartment, admitting that when she moved in she was just happy to have a structurally sound roof over her head – and that she’d had no idea she would spend the next forty years living there. And the threat of dying alone in that apartment lingers over her and the film, from the way her husband died to the gossip overheard of how another elderly resident wasn’t found for three weeks. That theme of life not turning out as planned, but trying to make it work, is at the core of the film, embodied in the turnaround from Shinoda trying to win back his wife to ensuring he’s still a part of his son’s life.
Charming, funny, and insightful, After the Storm manages to feel both thematically rich and effortlessly watchable. Every character is brilliantly acted, with Hiroshi Abe and Kirin Kiki putting in the standout performances, and the whole film sweats with the late summer atmosphere between the typhoons. It’s also a masterful showcase of modern Japan, highlighting not just an ageing population and social isolation, but a host of audio and visual cues not found outside the country – from the chaos inside a pachinko parlour to the tinny voice of a public safety broadcast echoing around the housing complex. Easily one of the best contemporary Japanese films I’ve seen in years.
After the Storm / 海よりもまだ深く
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Japanese Release Date: 21st May 2016
Version Watched: 117 min (Sky Cinema)