Ryota Shinoda, the main character of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After the Storm, is a case study of early burn-out. A tall, handsome man with an easy smile and an ingratiating shrug of his shoulders, Ryota (played by Hiroshi Abe) nevertheless habitually wears a hangdog expression when he thinks no one is looking. Perhaps it’s on account of his tattered family life – he’s having trouble getting over the recent breakup with his wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki), and he misses his young son Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa) terribly.
But his job at a lowball private investigation agency also has a lot to do with his lack of self-esteem. He typically spends his work days in low-class marital window-peeping jobs, after which he blows his paycheck at race tracks and pachinko halls. His gambling is a major weakness, as is his drinking. Once upon a time, we learn, Ryota had a promising career as a novelist, but the novel didn’t sell, and now, even though he tells friends he is working on a new book, he lets it slide. When a colleague offers him a high-paying quickie gig writing a manga with a gambling theme, Ryota refuses out of pride, but hates himself for it.
As he approaches middle age nursing a persistent losing streak – on top of everything else, he’s way behind in his child support payments – Ryota finds himself visiting his mother, a frank-talking but warm widow named Yoshiko (Kilin Kiki), at her apartment in a subsidized housing complex. She sympathizes with her son, but only to a degree. Ryota’s father had gambling problems of his own, which is why she still lives in that tiny, rundown flat. It’s clear that oba-chan Yoshiko is the driving force in the family that Ryota desperately wants to be, and it shames him. If only he could somehow reconnect with his baseball-playing son, maybe the pieces would fall into place.
Veteran filmmaker Kore-eda has made a number of heartfelt character studies since he burst onto the international scene with Maborosi and After Life in the mid-1990s. Sentimental journeys and spiritual awakenings are his cup of tea – the abandoned-children fable Nobody Knows (2004) is one of the most heartbreaking dramas in modern Japanese cinema. And there’s a pronounced flavor of the great director Yasujirô Ozu in After the Storm, little nuggets of character that add up to a family portrait that’s universally recognizable, no matter if the setting is Tokyo or Oakland.
We see them in the way Yoshiko and her daughter, Ryota’s sister, gossip while preparing food. The look on Ryota’s face as he watches Shingo’s baseball game, and Ryota’s fond memory of hiding with his dad inside a playground octopus structure during a typhoon, just for fun. Also, Ryota’s efforts to make up with his estranged wife, and her flat-out rejection of them. In the press notes, it’s mentioned that Kore-eda shot on location in the same housing estate where he grew up – so in a sense he’s closing a circle. The writing, direction, performances, and emotional subtlety of this film are a wonder to behold.