After the Storm is as much a film about things coming together, as it is about things falling apart. Directed by the acclaimed Japanese director Hirozaku Kore-eda, the film revolves around a once-popular novelist, now private detective Ryota Shinoda (played by Hiroshi Abe), who moonlights as a degenerate gambler. Ryota desperately tries to recoup his losses, trying to win back his ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki) and the right to see his son Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa), egged on by his ageing mother Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki).
After the Storm is a reunion of sorts for Kiki and Abe, who reprise their mother-and-son roles from Kore-eda’s acclaimed 2008 film Still Walking. Their chemistry is evident; luminous even. Their intimacy so permeates every scene they have together, allowing Kore-eda to do away with conventional sequences of dialogue at times. This is most evident in a scene where Yoshiko and Ryota are eating popsicles that have been frozen hard in complete silence, except for the sound of them both chipping away at the ice block. The camera’s gaze is unerring, but the unconventional scene endures, carried by the intimacy between Kiki and Abe.
Kiki sparkles as Yoshiko, whose character is as complex as they come. She is filled with an urgent longing to see her son succeed in life, tempered by an anxiety that it may be too late for him, and for her. Such fraught themes inform the veteran actress’s portrayal of Yoshiko, mingles with her trademark offbeat humour to create an electrifying performance. Yoshiko pulls no punches when it comes to jovially berating Ryota for being a useless son, but whose love for him is felt in equal measure. Kiki’s performance is as heart-rending as it is comedic, and she showcases such a rare blend of talent when she mock-wails, “oh, please don’t leave me!” to Ryota, who retorts, “you act as if you’re dying”.
Abe is also wonderful in his role as the prodigal son Ryota, whose desire to take care of his mother and his son is undermined by his urge to gamble. As a detective, Ryota’s inquisitive character longs to understand how his life could have come to this, exploring existential queries about the meaning of life through the questions he asks of others and is asked to answer. Questions such as “did you sleep with him?” and “what did you want to be when you were young?” highlights how two seemingly unrelated themes of love and youth are united under Kore-eda’s expositions on life. Such serious investigations are counterpoint to Ryota’s gambler, who is comical in his faith in self-made superstitions. For example, if he asserts the truth of something three times, he doesn’t mean what he says. This fundamental tension between his asking the hard questions and giving insincere answers is the faultline at which this film brews, revealing to Ryota the difficult truths that he searches for but is unable to confront.
Beyond a profound engagement with themes, After the Storm is also a showcase of Kore-eda’s mastery of the art of filmmaking. As alluded to earlier, Kore-eda’s scenes are economical with their dialogue, relying often on the resonant cinematography and existing plotlines to keep the film moving. Such scenes are employed even early on in the film, a point in the film where a lesser director would turn without shame to a narrative voice to invite the viewer into the film’s diegetic world. Instead, Kore-eda introduces us to Ryota’s ex-wife in this way, in a scene completely stripped of dialogue; the frame flips from Kyoko to Ryota, then unites them in a single frame whereupon it becomes evident that he is watching her at work from the alleyway next door. Setting and cinematography come together to create the realisation that their relationship is unfinished business, something Ryota himself reiterates towards the end of the film when he tells Kyoko ‘it’s not over between us’. The ability to convey so much through such subtleties truly distinguishes a Kore-eda film from any other.
From the non-intuitive of the cinematography to its curious characterisations, After the Storm is a film that isn’t afraid of contradictions. The product is a heartfelt film that is technically excellent – one would expect no less from one of Japan’s most inimitable directors.
Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
After The Storm is screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival on Friday 5th August at 6:30pm at Forum Theatre. For more information see here.