It takes an inimitable grace to portray failure with kindness. For all that disappointment, failure, and loneliness form the backbone of the narrative in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After the Storm, the film is warm through and through. To spin the title, we all weather showers, and the flowers they bring might not be the ones we wanted, but they’re no less worthy of our love.
We’re introduced to the family at the center of After the Storm just as they’ve lost one of their number. Ryota’s (Hiroshi Abe) father has passed away, leaving his mother (Kirin Kiki, absolutely remarkable) alone in the housing development that she’s lived in for almost as long as she can remember (though not quite that long — she tells her son that she remembers the day they moved in, and that she’d never expected to be here as long as she has). Ryota works as a private investigator under the pretense of doing research for his next novel. His prior work was a success, but came at the cost of some friction with his family as he drew from personal history, and his writing process now seems paralyzed, as he fails to make any headway on his next book and turns down other writing offers that would help pay the child support he owes his ex-wife (Yōko Maki) and young son. He uses his job as an excuse to spy on them, and gambles away what little money he makes, telling his colleague that it makes him feel alive.
It’s the kind of story that’d make it easy to cast judgment, not to mention one that sounds trite, but Kore-eda avoids both of those pitfalls. Judgment is saved to be passed between characters rather than through the lens, and the story plays out through small moments and observations as the characters go about their everyday lives instead of through extensive exposition. Some scenes add only to our understanding of the characters rather than our understanding of where the plot is going; in anyone else’s hands, they’d be considered fat to be trimmed, but Kore-eda imbues them with such a specificity that there’s no way that they could be left on the cutting room floor, or be confused for someone else’s work.
Take, for instance, the scene in which Ryota visits his mother, and she presents him with a sort of homemade ice cream. It’s less than ideal — it’s rock-solid and the top layer tastes a little like the freezer — but the grandchildren won’t eat all of it when they visit, and there’s an unspoken sort of sentimental attachment to the ritual. It’s that last part — sentiment — that Kore-eda really knows how to make sing, and as a result, the scenes that are tied more directly to the narrative are all the more striking.
Though the ripples it casts out tell of the characters’ disappointments and unfulfilled dreams, the pebble at the center of After the Storm is one of love. Though it might be a little heavy-handed, there’s a line of dialogue that does a good job of capturing what Kore-eda is getting at. The heart is an oil painting, a colleague tells Ryota. Old loves don’t disappear. They may get painted over, but they’re still there. So too remain failures. Ryota’s inability to paint something good stems from his inability to let those past colors be and to improve upon them. In the process, he’s slowly losing the opportunity to be good to those he loves.
That happiness is not as easy as it’s generally made out to be is a difficult concept to reconcile with. None of the characters in After the Storm is entirely happy, but that doesn’t mean that they’re unhappy, or that something better is unattainable. The hard part is that it takes work, which isn’t quite a message we associate with movies but which remains, as with the rest of the film, true to life. The resulting work is beautiful, and strikingly human.