“After the Storm” is a plain movie. It says what it means without flourish or affectation, tells its story with no stylistic embellishments and really, it’s all the better for it. Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda (“Our Little Sister”), “After the Storm” tells the story of Ryota (Hiroshi Abe, “Everest: Kamigami no Itadaki”), a struggling detective who is trying to relive his former glory as a prize-winning novelist. Ryota’s life is a bit of a mess: He can’t seem to stop himself from gambling away all his earnings, and he subsequently can’t pay for his young son’s childcare. His father has recently died, so he goes to visit his aging mother Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki, “Sweet Bean”) but Ryota’s sister suspects that he’s only trying to sponge off of her pension. Everybody likes him, but nobody quite trusts him.
The movie is a slow burn. We follow Ryota through the most mundane parts of his days, but this apparent slowness is deliberate and careful. We watch him buy a soda from the corner stone, meet with his detective partner to work on a case, go to the racetrack and lose all his day’s earnings. We watch him go back to his apartment, the rent for which he can rarely afford, and watch him go to sleep on a mattress on the floor. It’s all so deceptively casual, even when we see him meet with his son and ex-wife, and try and fail so hard at being a good and present father. Koreeda films it all exactly the same way, with no judgment or affectation. This is just the way things are, he seems to say.
Really, it’s the sharp writing that ties it all together. Koreeda’s script, like his direction, is highly realistic, with the characters speaking like actual people. It’s easy to forget it’s a movie at some points because of the earnest authenticity. That’s not to say that the story isn’t properly dramatized because it absolutely is. It’s just that there’s none of the flash or the spectacle we’re used to in family dramas.
The performances too are spectacular. In his portrayal of Ryota, Abe is simultaneously beaten down and hopeful. He can make the smallest action devastating with a slight shift in his eyes. There’s a heartbreaking vulnerability to his performance that permeates every scene, whether he’s shouting at the racetrack or sitting with his son in a playground. With every brilliant flashing smile, you can see exactly why Kyoko, his ex-wife (Yōko Maki, “The Lion Standing in the Wind”) fell for him, and why she ultimately left him.
Koreeda makes absolutely sure that we see the whole story, but he also never lingers too long over a given moment. It simply unfolds in real time, making the emotions hit that much harder. “After the Storm” is a slice of life drama, achingly realistic in its portrayal of family and expectations unmet.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie this gentle and careful. It never turns into a trite morality play or a melodrama. It has no cheap plot machinations or unearned emotional catharsis. It’s a lovely little film, unglamorous and unembellished. It is what it is, nothing more, nothing less — and that might just be why it’s so great.