It’s never too late to be what you might have been – a statement attributed to George Eliot which may be as fake as one of the promises offered by the protagonist of Hirokazu Koreeda’s latest attempt to chart the course of his nation through its basic social unit, After the Storm (海よりもまだ深く, Umi yori mo Mada Fukaku). Reuniting Kirin Kiki and Hiroshi Abe as mother and son following their star turns in Still Walking, After the Storm is, in many ways, a story of decline and lost potential though it leaves room for a new beginning if only the past can finally be left behind.
Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is a one time prize winning novelist now working at a sleazy detective agency. He’s also a divorced father and well meaning deadbeat dad who never pays his child support but turns up every Sunday to hang out with his 11 year old son, Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa), much to the consternation of his ex-wife, Kyoko (Yoko Maki). Ryota hasn’t quite accepted that the marriage is over and has been using his detective skills to spy on Kyoko, discovering that she has a new man in her life who’s the exact opposite of him – successful, wealthy, and part of the elegant set.
Like father, like son (to echo another of Koreeda’s films), Ryota has inherited some of his worst qualities from his recently deceased dad. When we first meet him, Ryota has surreptitiously returned to his childhood home and let himself in with the spare key only to start rifling through draws, pocketing old lottery tickets and appraising the value of every object in sight. His mother, Yoshiko (Kirin Kiki), is actually a little bit relieved at her husband’s passing as she’s finally free of his unpleasant behaviour. Remembered as a liar and a cheat, an untrustworthy man whom everyone avoided, Ryota’s father is not the best role model leaving both of his children determined not to follow in his footsteps. This is Ryota’s first failure, and the one he’s most reluctant to acknowledge.
Desperately wanting to reclaim his place within his own family, Ryota goes to great lengths to get the money for his child support payments, somehow still hoping to be forgiven. Ryota’s eyes are always on the prize, but always on the unattainable rather than the real possibilities right in front of him. After double dealing on his clients by effectively blackmailing them, not to mention pressuring his colleague to lend him money, Ryota fritters it away on gambling trying to win it all, rather than settling for making the best of what he has. His quick fix approach to life has already cost him his wife’s faith as she is far less obliged to put up with the kind of nonsense Yoshiko was expected to grin and bear.
Yet Ryota seems to have the desire to be better, only lacking the faith to accept the possibility. When Ryota tries to blackmail a high school boy over an affair with a teacher, the boy declares that he’ll never grow up to be the kind of man Ryota is. Ryota, wounded, replies that it isn’t easy to grow up and be the man you wanted to be. As a child, Ryota wanted to be a civil servant because it was the exact opposite of his father, but he’s ended up becoming his father anyway. Shingo also claims to want to be a civil servant rather than something flashier like a professional baseball player but perhaps his desires are born more out of a sense of self realisation than an active opposition. When someone later asks Ryota if he’s the man he always wanted to be, he truthfully replies that he isn’t, but he’s working on it.
Events come to a head when Kyoko, Shingo, and Ryota end up staying over at Yoshiko’s apartment because of the oncoming typhoon. Played out with a quiet kind of restraint, old grievances are aired, understandings are reached, and each arrives at the next morning with a new sense of clarity. After the storm has broken, there’s nothing left to do but assess the damage and then begin trying to rebuild as best you can.
Ryota’s epiphany comes to him as he’s wearing his father’s shirt and about to sign his own name with his father’s prized brush and ink stone. There’s something to be said for owning yourself, even if you can’t exactly be proud of it. Yoshiko asks why men can’t learn to love the present – if all you ever do is obsess over what you’ve lost or what you could gain, life will pass you by. Ryota may not have changed very much after coming through the storm, but he’s working on it. Who knows, he might even mean it, this time.
Reviewed at the 2016 BFI London Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)
The original Japanese title for the film, Umi yori mo Mada Fukaku, is taken from the lyrics to the Teresa Teng song Wakare no Yokan.