Hirokazu Kore-eda first established himself as a major filmmaker with a string of audacious dramas that included a harrowing portrait of modern poverty (“Nobody Knows”) and a transcendent vision of the great beyond (“After Life”). In recent years, however — at least since 2009’s “Air Doll,” a contemporary fairy tale in which Bae Doo-na plays an inflatable sex doll who comes to life — the great Japanese humanist has downshifted towards more openly sentimental slice-of-life stories, churning out low-key masterpieces with such regularity and deceptive effortlessness that it can be easy to take them for granted.
So when Kore-eda unloads another gently brilliant film full of characters so real and full of life that it feels as though could fly to Japan and visit them, it may not seem like much cause for celebration. But when one of those films is just the tiniest bit above his batting average, it’s enough to clarify and crystallize what makes them all so special. Hirokazu Kore-eda may only make good movies, but “After the Storm” is one of his best.
The story of a divorced gambling addict named Ryota (the brilliant Hiroshi Abe) who slowly confronts the fact that he’s becoming the same kind of satellite dad as the man who raised him, “After the Storm” could very well have been called “Like Father, Like Son” had Kore-eda not already made a film by that title. It begins in Kiyose, a quiet city on the outer rim of the Tokyo galaxy, where Ryota’s newly widowed mother (Kirin Kiki, who also played Abe’s mom in “Still Walking”) takes note of the incoming typhoon, and remembers how worried she used to be that every stretch of inclement weather might tear off her roof. Her son is nearly 50, and he only comes home to pawn his late father’s belongings, but he still needs someone to look after him.
It’s been 15 years since Ryota won a prestigious (but not that prestigious) writing award for his one and only novel, and hopes for a follow-up seem emptier by the day. Desperate for cash he can blow on the racetrack, and always short on the child support payments he owes to his ex-wife, the charmingly bedraggled burnout has started working for a rinky-dink detective agency. He claims the job is “research” for his next book, but he’s practically a full-time employee by the time we meet him. The gig suits him — a perpetual schemer, he enjoys blackmailing his clients and turning his pre-teen son into an informant, Ryota squeezing the kid for information about his ex-wife (Yoko Maki) and her well-groomed new boyfriend.
“After the Storm” may sound like it has the makings of a strained domestic melodrama, filled with teary speeches and dangerous acts of parental selfishness, but viewers familiar with Kore-eda’s quotidian flair know to expect a more pleasant, contemplative affair. For all of the Japanese directors who have been reflexively likened to Yasujirō Ozu (the titan of world cinema providing gaijin writers with a reductive point of reference for any number of remotely meditative movies that have emerged from the Land of the Rising Sun), Kore-eda is one of the precious few who earns the comparison. His eased, comfortable style is light years removed from Ozu’s formal rigidity, but their achingly wistful films are bound by a shared compulsion to confront life’s everyday disappointments, and to reckon with the ones that we bring upon ourselves.
“I wonder why it is that men can’t love the present,” Ryota’s mother asks, rescuing a rare moment of raw curiosity from a woman whose other dialogue bristles with dry humor. “Either they keep chasing whatever it is they’ve lost, or they keep dreaming beyond their reach.” Ryota, the most heartbreaking kind of deadbeat dad, simultaneously manages to do both. As the typhoon sets in, he contrives to use the storm as a way of trapping his ex-wife and their son in the same place for a rare night together; he wants to exhume the marriage he once had, while also becoming the kind of family man that he could never be.
“Listen,” Ryota tells his son as the rain begins to fall, “It’s not that easy growing up to be the man you want to be.” And it isn’t.
But Kore-eda doesn’t let him off the hook for that, he doesn’t follow the Hollywood tradition of forcing his characters to mess up in the first act so that he can cheaply redeem them for something in the third. “Grown ups can’t live on love, alone,” Ryota’s ex-wife sighs in a tender moment that lands with the power of a force 10 gale. And while the people in the director’s films often express their truths in the plainest possible language, detailing their desires and outlining their wounds so that the audience can see them sublimated into every scene, Kore-eda knows that life is less about getting what you want than it is wanting what you get. Watching Ryota begin to reconcile the difference between those two notions is a profoundly powerful experience — funny, accessible, and as immense in feeling as it is small in scale. Sensitive enough to focus on a teapot in a tempest, “After the Storm” may not bring much in the way of thunder, but when the clouds clear and the sun comes up, you’ll look up at the roof and smile to see that it’s still there.
“After the Storm” is now in theaters.