Hirokazu Koreeda has a reputation abroad as the one director of his generation carrying on the humanist tradition of Japanese cinema’s 1950s and ’60s Golden Age. This is not totally off the mark — he often returns to that favorite Golden Age theme, family dissolution, but his take on it is quite different from that theme’s most famous exponent, Yasujiro Ozu.
As Koreeda himself has often said in interviews, he appreciates being mentioned in the same breath as Ozu, but his true Golden Age inspiration is Mikio Naruse. Once dismissively labeled a “poor man’s Ozu,” Naruse has since been recognized as a master with a darker, more unsparing vision of contemporary Japanese society. Where Ozu’s characters of the era were typically middle-class, Naruse’s were often several rungs down the status and income ladder, with money a cause of worry, discord and rupture.
Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), the Narusian hero of Koreeda new film, “After the Storm,” is a writer who won a literary prize 15 years ago but has since produced nothing. He has also fallen behind on child-support payments to ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki), who is threatening to withdraw access to their 11-year-old son, Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa). Ryota works as a private detective, spying on people having affairs in the name of “research,” but his gambling habit keeps him perpetually broke.
To buy Shingo a baseball glove, he extorts hush money from an investigative subject/victim, as an understanding junior colleague (Sosuke Ikematsu) looks on, but he then loses it all at the bike track. The next day, he and his fellow gumshoe stake out Kyoko and her new salaryman boyfriend, and discover that the BF has already bought the boy a glove. Ryota is outraged at the interloper’s impudence, but also silent about his own responsibility for this state of affairs.
When Shingo appears for his monthly visit, Ryota takes him to see his outspoken elderly mother (Kirin Kiki) in the danchi (housing complex) where she is living alone after the recent death of Ryota’s father. His objective: to find the hiding place of Mom’s bank book.
This may sound like black comedy, and Koreeda, who also wrote the script, extracts laughs at Ryota’s expense. But more than “I Wish,” Koreeda’s 2011 comedy about two kids trying to bring their divorced parents back together, “After the Storm” is closer in tone and theme to “Still Walking,” his 2008 masterpiece about a family torn apart by tragedy but still clinging to appearances, which also starred Abe and Kiki.
Shooting the film in the same Tokyo danchi where he once lived, Koreeda intersperses a wealth of revealing detail, from the shimmering green beauty of the building’s grounds after a typhoon (an image that sparked him to make the film) to the cups of frozen Calpis made by Mom, so reminiscent of an earlier, thriftier Japan. But Naruse-like, Koreeda also refuses the pleasures of nostalgia, exposing the poverty and disorder of Ryota’s life with a relentless eye.
Ryota: a figure of pathos — or simply pathetic? As Ryota, Kyoko and Shingo wait out a raging typhoon in the danchi, the film delivers an answer that rings true to anyone who has had moments of close communion with loved ones (or once-loved-ones), free from the background noise of a troubled past. That answer, however, is long in coming and, in the meantime, we have to listen to Ryota’s face-saving excuses and self-justifications, which begin to wear as we wait for the expected self-awakening.
Abe’s performance is not the problem, save for the sneer that keeps reflexively flitting across his face. In fact, his bedrock seriousness, which under Koreeda’s direction never shades to woodenness, gives substance to Ryota’s never-healing, if mainly self-inflicted, wounds.
He reminds us that failure, be it as a writer, husband, father or son, hurts even as you deny it — or deserve it. And that when you’re having a bad day at the track, it’s better to walk away than double down.