“A stew needs time for the flavors to sink in; so do people,” observes the sage matriarch of “After the Storm.” The same could be said for Hirokazu Kore-eda’s filmmaking, which keeps the melancholy tale of a broken family reunited briefly by a typhoon on a slow simmer until the last act, which is sprinkled with small epiphanies about our humble existence. Featuring an uncomplicated plot and easily relatable personalities, this is a divertissement compared with the thematic heft of “Like Father, Like Son.” Still its gentle contemplation of life’s disappointments and human inadequacy may draw new recruits beyond the director-writer’s euro-arthouse base.
The character arc of a deadbeat father struggling to win back the love and respect of his estranged wife and son is one often found in pugilist films. But for Kore-eda, it’s a means to rework past themes in his family dramas, such as the pain of a child’s inability to fulfill parental expectations (“Still Walking”), the impact of divorce on children (“I Wish”) or the meaning of hereditary relations (“Like Father, Like Son”). Accentuating the sense of a continuing saga is the casting of Kirin Kiki (“An”) and Hiroshi Abe (Thermae Romae), who reunite after “Still Walking,” in which they also played mother and son.
Ryota (Abe) won a prestigious award for his first novel, but his muse seems to have deserted him. He works for a private detective agency but to save face tells others it’s a temporary stint to research for his next novel (which hasn’t materialized for 15 years). His wife, Kyoko (Yoko Maki), has left him, presumably due to his gambling addition, and she threatens not to let him see their young son Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa, soulful) unless he pays child support.
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Seeing Ryota blackmail surveillance targets for kickbacks, spy on his wife’s dates or swipe anything of value from his mother’s frugal home, it’s clear he’s nobody’s role model. Yet Kore-eda recounts these scenes with good humor, making it hard to write him off as a scumbag. His sister and his boss indulge him, either lending him money they know he’ll never pay back or overlooking his infractions. It’s characteristic of Kore-eda’s moderation that he doesn’t pile on the mawkish misery, reminding viewers that the world is not a totally cruel and heartless place.
The only person Ryota doesn’t mess with is Shingo, whom he desperately adores. Looking far wiser than his years, with doe-eyes and delicate cheekbones, the boy is not demonstrative with his affection, but he’s accepted his dad for the loser he is and still wants to be around him. On their big day out, they end up partaking in the same childhood pastimes Ryota shared with his late father. Although it’s poignant to see the cycle being continued, the experience also rekindles Ryota’s fond memories of his old man, with whom he had a rocky relationship.
A turning point occurs when a typhoon forces Kyoko, Shingo, and Ryota to sleep over at his mother, Yoshiko’s, home. Such is the finesse of Kore-eda’s script that it builds to neither the vehement confrontation nor the comforting reconciliation that melodrama decrees. Instead, it imparts those rare, liberating moments when characters revert to their most honest selves and pluck up the courage to express their deepest, albeit unattainable wishes.
In a heartbreaking scene, Yoshiko and Kyoko try to reach an understanding even as their intentions run counter to each other. The two seem like mirror images: They’ve put up with a lot in marriage and stoically brought up the children. Their ability to make the best of things and move on is a model of graciousness compared with their men’s headstrong attachment to the past and inflated hopes for the future.
Kore-eda sets his story in Kiyose, a city on the outskirts of the Tokyo Metropolis, and shoots in the “danchi” (low-rent housing compound) where he grew up. In doing so, the director claims artistic affinity with neorealist master Mikio Naruse. However, while Naruse’s protagonists tend to be so blinded by egoistical passion that they willfully destroy themselves and others, Kore-eda takes a more generous view of humanity in “After the Storm.” Rather than trying to undo the past, the characters come to accept life’s imperfection, and are more or less at peace with their failures. The Japanese title, taken from a song by Taiwanese diva Teresa Teng, means “even deeper than the sea.” The original lyrics are a romantic statement, but here they invoke family ties that transcend love and death.
The towering 6-2 Abe consciously affects a diffident stoop that matches his hang-dog expression. By contrast, Maki carries herself with glacial poise, a sign that Kyoko is holding back her feelings from Ryota in order to make the most pragmatic decisions. Yet the two exude the instinctive familiarity of people who once loved each other passionately. Kiki goes through her trademark dotty old woman shtick but emerges as a pillar of strength by the finale. Craft contributions are unobtrusively polished.