Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) used to be a promising writer, but now he’s forced to moonlight as a private investigator to pay the bills. That is, if he did pay the bills. Instead, he whiles away his money at the racetrack, infuriating his ex-wife, Kyoko (Yoko Maki), who threatens to cancel his monthly visits with his son, Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa), if he continues to miss child-support payments. However, when Ryota gets cooped up with his mother (Kirin Kiki), son, and ex-wife during a typhoon, he sees a chance to reunite his family and prove to be the man he always thought he was.
Like so many of his films, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After the Storm is deceptively simple. The plot is straightforward: a hapless father tries to reconnect with his son and win back his ex-wife. The filmmaking is deceptively mundane: it consists mostly of wide shots and uncluttered frames within homes and workplaces. But as he’s done so many times before, Kore-eda has crafted a masterwork of detail within this simplicity.
The plot of After the Storm is familiar, used in romantic comedies and Oscar-winning dramas alike, so you’d be excused for thinking After the Storm plays broadly based off its description alone. However, Kore-eda uses convention to explore family bonds and the difficulties of escaping family legacy. And he fills every interaction between his characters with mountains of meaning; nothing is accidental.
For instance, early in the film, we see Ryota rifling through his mother’s cabinets before she returns home, looking for money or anything he can pawn. He spots a starched dessert at the shrine to his dead father and takes a bite. It seems innocent enough an action, the sort of thing a lovable rake would do, but before the scene is through, we learn that Kore-eda has imbued even this seemingly-mundane action with deep meaning. When his mother returns home, Ryota makes small talk, as if he’s being the dutiful son checking in on his mother, but without missing a beat, his mother mentions he has starch on his face, as if saying, “I know you too well, Ryota. You’re here because you want something.”
The meaning of this gesture doesn’t stop there. It grows richer as we learn that Ryota’s father was a gambler who wasted his family’s money and disrespected Ryota’s career as a writer. We come to understand why Ryota would be so quick to disgrace his father’s shrine or why his mother would ignore his worst qualities in favour of his charming ones. We learn that he hated his father. And yet, he’s also become him. He gambles his money away. His own family life has fallen apart. Something as simple as eating a mochi conveys a whole lifetime of relationships and regrets. Kore-eda imbues every such detail with similar meaning. Every exchange is loaded. Every line of dialogue carries delicate subtext specific to these characters and circumstances. Every moment of casual domesticity is exactly manufactured.
Kore-eda’s camera is similarly loaded in meaning. He doesn’t move the camera much or compose the kind of stark frames that win Best Cinematography awards, but the frame is painstakingly composed. The careful, lived-in reality of his characters is the result of meticulous attention to detail. Making filmmaking look hard is easy and rewarding—just ask Damien Chazelle. It’s making it look easy that’s hard and what makes masters like Kore-eda so special.
As he did in the past with Nobody Knows and Still Walking, Kore-eda has crafted a great film that understands how people live their lives and the meaning of small moments of grace. After the Storm only grows richer upon rewatch, as its gentle depictions of family strife reveal further layers not even imagined on first viewing. Only great films reveal so much more about our world and our habits upon reviewing. They’re wellsprings that never run dry.