There is a phenomenon in Japan called hikikomori (pulling inward). It mostly applies to 20-somethings. But in 2017 an article came out in The New York Times to document a different and yet somehow similar occurrence.
Many older people risk the chance of dying alone if they have no family because many live without a network of community and neighbors while in such proximity might still leave them invariably isolated. I have lived there for an extended period of time, granted as a foreigner, and yet I could feel the weight of such an environment
Thus, the dutiful grown children worry about their parents, about being the good son or the good daughter. Ryota’s mother is a wonderful lady. She gives him a playful slug in the stomach, tells him to his face he’s a horrible liar but always in love. Quibbles ensue between siblings over taking advantage of their mother’s good graces since she lives only off her pension following the death of her husband years back.
And yet there is a certain relish in these core relationships because even if it’s not a perfect picture you get the sense that mother and son care deeply for each other. It’s the films most gratifying interaction watching Hiroshi Abe and Kiki Kirin play off each other. Menial events take on the utmost meaning because they manage to color the characters in honest ways and the film has many of these seemingly inconsequential moments. That’s a product of its pacing.
For people who haven’t lived in Tokyo, preconceived notions of it might come from the likes of Lost in Translation (2003). Personified by ultra-hip areas like Shinjuku, Shibuya, and Harajuku touted for their nightlife and shopping. But there are a lot of other places too as director Hirokazu Kore-eda suggests. The Tokyo made up of suburbs, apartment complexes, and more ordinary landscapes. The Nerimas and Kiyoses of the world.
Coppola’s film worked because it was going for the perspective of an outsider. I enjoyed After The Storm immensely because it has the attention to detail and the touches of a local — someone who has known this terrain intimately. I distinctly remember the first time I ever came back to the states knowing I would soon be returning to Japan. And in that moment I no longer felt like a tourist but someone with a new sort of understanding. It’s crucial because it changes your entire outlook and what you deem important. The big moments aren’t as relevant as the day-to-day.
Abe’s performance is so exquisitely rendered because while the picture is by no means a comedy his various ticks, expressions, even his lumbering figure are humorous without ever truly meaning to be. And they are organic moments that never feel forced. In other words, they are human and so despite his shortcomings, there’s something that resonates about him. When we look at his life we see a bit of his restlessness. He’s still not the man he wants to be. He realizes that.
His ex-wife is seeing another man. The rich new boyfriend feels like a universal trope that doesn’t need much explanation. Meanwhile, Ryota rarely gets to see his son, only on prearranged days were he pays child support. He’s notoriously bad on making their meetings on time. That and other reasons are hints to why his wife left him. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t hold onto some wistfulness, especially where his son is involved.
Though once an award-winning author most recently he’s taken on a job as a private investigator. He says it’s only temporary — research for his latest project — but it’s been going on far too long. He’s started getting used to it and so have his coworkers.
The film’s point of departure and ultimate revelation, if there is one, comes in the wake of a typhoon. Again, living in Japan you understand that this is a fairly common occurrence. But it’s the regular person’s side of Tokyo away from the bright lights.
Trying to field lost lottery tickets in the swirling downpour or shielding oneself inside a slide at a park watching the debris fly by is enough of a diversion because the intent is to consider not so much environmental changes but how our characters change.
Of course, implicit in the translated title is that there is something new (あたらしい) about life. And yet when we get on the other side of the storm it’s difficult to know. That would be the form of a typical film. To make the before and the after drastically different. Here the characters have changed — no doubt — but externally their behavior seems all but the same. The development is incremental and internalized.
I appreciate that. In life, there is rarely a megaphone to announce change for us. Sometimes it’s imperceptible to the eye. It’s even notoriously difficult to acknowledge some changes in ourselves. And yet we know they are there. Because to our last breath, we are indubitably a work in progress. We will never be perfect. That’s part of what makes life and this film thoroughly intriguing. What’s more is that it still glimmers with a certain hopefulness.