Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda works in small brushstrokes, but his emotional canvas is large. His latest movie, “After the Storm,” is, like most of his others, essentially a series of small-scale epiphanies about family life. Nothing terribly dramatic occurs in this film. Even the typhoon that closes out the story is (deliberately) anticlimactic, an excuse to bond its characters, however briefly, together.
Ryôta (Hiroshi Abe) wrote a prize-winning first novel 15 years ago but hasn’t followed up with another. He makes his living as a small-time private detective specializing in seedy blackmail cases while pretending he only does this to research a new novel. An inveterate gambler, he’s also a deadbeat dad who still has feelings for his exasperated ex-wife, Kyôko (Yôko Maki), and loves his 12-year-old son, Shingo (Taiyô Yoshizawa).
As one would expect, Ryôta uses his detective skills to spy on Kyôko and her new boyfriend; on the weekends when Ryôta sees Shingo, he tries to get the boy to fill him in on the seriousness of this new relationship. Ryôta’s connection to his aged, recently widowed mother, Yoshiko (the wonderful Kirin Kiki, who gave such a great performance last year in “Sweet Bean”), is equally fraught: He shows up at her house and rummages through his father’s things looking for items to pawn. She is both reproving and forgiving. Their relationship, with its tense easygoingness, is one of the more convincing mother-son depictions I’ve seen in the movies in quite a while.
Taken at face value, all this makes Ryôta out to be a prime scoundrel, but that’s not really how he comes across. He’s too feckless and pathetic. His sole novel was titled “The Empty Table,” and his life resembles a table in which the place settings are scarce. He moves through his days in a kind of addled haze. Even his gambling, at the track or in the pachinko parlors, is almost desultory. This is not a Dostoyevskian addiction we are witnessing.
In a sense, without being overtly sentimental about it, this is a movie about how men, much more so than women, are foolish dreamers. It is the women in this film and not the men who see things for what they are. Yoshiko doesn’t unduly mourn the loss of her husband; she wastes no time in disposing of most of his things and complains to Ryôta that the man never provided her with the life she deserved. (She knows she will live out her days in the same low-rent housing complex on the outskirts of Tokyo.) She and Kyôko talk about how “men can’t enjoy the present,” how they are always chasing after happiness and the hypothetical.
Ryôta himself accedes to all this. He apologizes for being “such a useless son.” He tells Shingo, whom he dotes on, that it is “not easy growing up to be the man you want to be,” and his fatherly words are both advice and apologia. Shingo, who at times seems a lot wiser than his 12 years, understands his father, whom he loves despite everything, better than Ryôta understands himself.
In various ways, many of the people in “After the Storm” serve as Ryôta’s enablers. His mother, despite all she knows about her son, and the sympathy she feels toward her former daughter-in-law, contrives to have them and Shingo seek refuge in her apartment during the typhoon that closes out the film. She wants Ryôta and Kyôko to reunite. But Kore-eda doesn’t go for easy, beribboned resolutions. That’s not his way.
The drawback to Kore-eda’s approach is that, at times, too much of what we see is all we get. His outlook on existence is not so much an aesthetic choice as a philosophical one. He can show us the outer contours of life in all their resplendent ordinariness but he doesn’t often dive deeply below the surface in ways that shake you up. There are times in this lovely, complacent movie about uncomplacent circumstance when I wanted to be shaken up, and wasn’t. Grade: B (This movie is not rated.)