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After the Storm is a film for adults. Now, it’s not what Hollywood considers adult—it wasn’t marketed with an expletive-laden “red band trailer”—but rather it’s a modestly budgeted, exquisitely made drama about adult characters who change in small but meaningful ways. Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda has been turning them out for a quarter century. He chronicles the cyclical pain and loneliness that afflict the Japanese middle-class, but his perceptive stories have universal appeal. Anyone will find something to relate to here.
A hallmark of his work is the unlikable, irresponsible father figure, and After the Storm follows suit. Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is a deadbeat dad, an obsessive gambler, and an inveterate liar. He’s on the verge of losing visitation rights to his pre-teen son over missed alimony payments, but he pisses away his meager income on lotto tickets and bicycle races. Even without the gambling, he’d have a hard time making ends meet. While Ryota published a novel to great acclaim years prior, he has spent the last several years working as a private detective for a small agency.
His life is like quicksand, with every lie further tarnishing his relationships, making it harder for him to turn things around. On a monthly visit with his son, Ryota pretends not to be hungry, when really he can’t afford dinner for both of them. He proceeds to take the kid’s french fries without asking. Later, he asks his mother to cook him dinner, asking for seconds because he has never tasted food so good. At work, his subterfuge is monetized. He gets hired to take photos of a man’s cheating wife, then blackmails her for more money, with a promise to keep the photos hidden from her husband. In his spare time, he uses his detective skills to spy on his ex-wife, who has started dating a wealthier, younger guy.
In the final third, these strands come together as a typhoon engulfs their city and he, his ex-wife, and his son are forced to spend the night at his mother’s apartment. Ryota tries to win back his wife’s affections; she waits for the typhoon to pass.
Symbolism aside, After the Storm is a winningly straightforward film. Hollywood likes to tell stories about liars and con artists with narrative trickery. But Kore-eda opts for a more sincere approach, refusing to condone or judge Ryota’s lies. His money problems are real and the more he tries to climb his way out, the deeper he sinks. But Kore-eda also makes clear that most of Ryota’s wounds are self-inflicted and creates a full roster of relatable supporting characters—especially his strong, pragmatic mother, played heartbreakingly by Kirin Kiki—through which his emotional destruction is reflected.
If Ryota’s complexities are easy to take, it’s partially because the film remains so honest and earnestly philosophical about them. “Why can’t men love the present?” his mother wisely asks in a crucial scene, referring ostensibly to her late husband, who spent his days dreaming about a lost past or imagined future.
Ryota is the same. He dreams of winning the lottery, putting his family back together, and finally writing that second novel, but the film ultimately draws a strong line between fantasy and reality. After the Storm stands firmly on the side of reality and makes it a rewarding place to be.
After the Storm opens Friday at E Street Cinema.