OP-ROB RATING: ALL-STAR
Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is a middle-aged novelist who started a promising career by publishing an award-winning book called “The Empty Table”. He has since been married, had a child, fallen into debt, and gotten a divorce. Now his career as a novelist seems like a footnote in comparison to his other problems. Kyoko (Yōko Maki) is Ryota’s ex-wife; she works in real estate and has custody of Shingo (Taiyô Yoshizawa), Ryota’s twelve-year-old son. While Kyoko seems cold, she just wants what is best for Shingo and herself. Shingo is a quiet youngster who plays baseball, it is fitting that instead of swinging aimlessly for home runs, he always tries to draw a walk. It is he that has the complicated task of keeping a relationship with his estranged father. Tying the three together is Ryota’s grandmother, Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki), who in her fun-loving appeal manages to keep a relationship with all of them. These are the main characters in Hirokazu Koreeda’s new film “After the Storm”, which has hardly anything to do with storms.
The story swirls around its flawed main character, Ryota, who is masterfully portrayed by Hiroshi Abe. On the surface, he seems like a despicable character. A divorced gambling addict on the verge of being evicted from his tiny one room apartment, Ryota spends his days doing the sleazy work of a private detective, sometimes spying for clients and other times spying on his ex-wife. In a vexing scene, Ryota secures a decent commission only to gamble it all away at the cycling racetrack. Without a doubt, Ryota is a deadbeat dad who deserves little sympathy. However, it is impossible not to feel something for the downtrodden novelist. In Abe’s long, unshaven, and weathered face you can see goodness and a desire to do the right thing. It takes a skilled director-actor pair to generate this kind of unearned sympathy for such a disappointing character. Within Ryota there is also a metaphor for the deceiving nature of gambling. As Ryota assures his detective colleague, if he wins at the track he can buy cleats and a baseball glove for Shingo and pay for rent. The desire is true, but the treacherousness of gambling robs it of any virtue.
Where “After the Storm” hit me personally, was in its message about dreams and responsibility. As a college student, it seems as you get closer and closer to graduation people stray from their passions and focus their efforts on preparation for “the real world”. It is easy to scoff at these people and view them as sellouts. But the real world is undoubtedly coming, and when the unsuccessful dreamers cant buy baseball cleats for their children they may wish they had been more practical during college. Life changes, and with it your desires and obligations change. The comedic, high-energy senior Yoshiko has more than a few wise musings on this topic throughout the film. Your dreams do not take priority over your family. This resonates within the character of Ryota, who has never swallowed that pill. In one scene Yoshiko tells her “late blooming” son to “hurry up, or I’ll haunt you!” as she staggers toward him like a ghost. In another scene Ryota faces this problem quite starkly when he is given an opportunity to write for a Manga comic book. He turns it down out of pride, and out of his dream of becoming a self-sufficient novelist. It is a damning symbol of irony that Ryota’s one award-winning book is called “The Empty Table”.
“After the Storm” does not do anything groundbreaking. There are no gimmicks or twists. The cinematography is simple and unstylized. And while there are grand analyses of human nature that arise from the story, Koreeda never thumps them over our head. In one particular scene midway through the movie, Ryota excitedly takes Shingo to a lottery kiosk to buy tickets. Ryota explains that his father had taken him to do the same as a child. It was at this moment that you could hear the air get sucked out of theater, as there was a collective sigh from the audience. Unprompted by a musical buildup or a dramatic flashback, Koreeda delivers a stinging example how the sins of the father can affect a generation through modest words and expressions.
In the end, “After the Storm” does not leave you feeling excited or inspired like a family-drama such as ”Little Miss Sunshine” would. What it does make you feel is hope for man stuck in generation-old habits and a debilitating urge to regain what he has lost forever. As Shingo asks Ryota, “Are you who you wanted to be?” his father replies, “I’m not. Not yet.” If you look closely, there are enough signs throughout the film to suggest he might be on the way.