Hirokazu Kore-eda on After the Storm
Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda delivers another low-key but spellbinding family drama with After the Storm, which he reveals to be one of his most personal films
For over two decades, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda has steadily been making some of the most humane films in modern cinema, and with Hayao Miyazaki now semi-retired he has a better than fair claim to being his nation’s finest working filmmaker. His bittersweet movies, which include I Wish, Still Walking and Our Little Sister, tend to focus on the tensions and frictions that exist between families, which he explores through barely perceptible gestures and gentle ironies.
Thematically and stylistically, the 54-year-old’s work calls to mind Japan’s greatest ever filmmaker, Ozu, although Kore-eda himself doesn’t agree with the comparison. In previous interviews we’ve seen him cite Mikio Naruse, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh as his chief influences, and when we ask him that question by email he says the first four names that spring to mind are “Federico Fellini, Naruse Mikio, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Robert Benton.”
Kore-eda’s latest film, After the Storm, might be his most personal. The story follows Ryota (a lanky and long-faced Hiroshi Abe), who's one of life’s losers. He’s divorced from his wife, Kyoko (Yoko Make), and can barely scrape together the child support for his ten-year-old son, Kento (Sosuke Ikematsu). His professional life is in the toilet too: his once promising literary career has long evaporated and he finds himself working for a sleazy private detective agency, a job he initially took as research for a book but has now turned into his full-time gig. Add to all this, he’s a chronic gambler.
Early on we find Ryota visiting his mother, Yoshiko (Kore-eda regular Kirin Kiki), in the hope of claiming some of his recently deceased father’s belongings to sell for some quick cash, only to find pop, from whom Ryota has inherited his gambling addiction, has pawned anything of value years ago. Kore-eda says the character is “based on 50% of my father, 30% of myself, and 20% is from my friends I researched for this film.”
Few would own up to contributing almost a third of their own personality to such a sad sack. What’s the connection? “As a son and as a father there are still various things that I haven’t done as well as I should have – that’s my dilemma and regret,” admits Kore-eda. “So in that sense there’s really a strong resemblance between Ryota and me.”
Another link between the director and his protagonist is that both won writing prizes in their youth. “When I was 27 I won an honourable mention in a scriptwriting contest.” Ryota never builds on his youthful literary talent and potential, and Kore-eda says he could have easily done the same if his feet were less firmly on the ground. “[After winning the prize] I thought about quitting my television job [he started out as an assistant director], believing I could make a living scriptwriting. My mother told me to give up the idea, since I had to eat. She told me I should be patient and keep working. So I tried to be patient and I’m glad now I did. If I had quit, I probably would have become like Ryota.”
The film seems to be about what children inherit and learn from their parents. “This theme interested me, I think,” says Kore-eda, “because I became a father in my fifties, and it dawned on me how much I gradually started to resemble my father.” Unfortunately for Ryota, the only qualities he seems to have inherited from his old man are flaws, which go way beyond gambling. As the film progresses his unpleasant character traits multiply: he shakes down clients at the detective agency at which he works, spies on his ex-wife while she’s on dates with her new boyfriend and tries to save a few bucks on his son’s baseball cleats by intentionally damaging them in the store. (Ryota’s father’s one admirable quality was exquisite penmanship, but Ryota takes after his mother in this regard.) Young Shingo, despite loving his father, is clearly worried that in his case the apple might not fall far from the tree also.
Ryato isn’t only a disappointment to his son, but his mother too. Much of the film takes place inside her poky, cluttered flat. The apartment, and others like it within her rundown estate, was designed as a starter home for a middle-class family, but thanks to having a gambling addict for a husband and feckless offspring who only visit when they want to sponge money off of her, Yoshiko’s never been able to upgrade to something more comfortable.
Kore-ede grew up in a very similar neighbourhood. “In the past, these apartments were the kind of housing complexes that everyone dreamed of living in,” he explains. “But over the last 50 years, unexpectedly, we’ve seen an increasingly aging population and a dilapidation in the architecture.” The apartment block, and the surrounding neighbourhood, in After the Storm have clearly seen better days. Families no longer choose these suburbs as their homes. The playgrounds have closed and the streets are deserted, save for the less well-off pensioners who have been forced to stick around. “For those characters who think, ‘I never expected this to happen in life,’ it represents a huge problem," says Kore-eda. "The outlook is painful and miserable, but I wasn’t necessarily aiming for such a pessimistic portrayal.” Indeed, while Kore-enade shows the flat to cramped and cluttered, it's also full of life and memories.
The storm of the title is the final typhoon of the season, which happens to hit while Ryota’s ex, Kyoko, is picking up Kento from Yoshiko's flat after a day out with his dad. Thanks to the weather, the family is forced to spend their first night together under one roof since the divorce. But the typhoon acts as more than a mere story telling device to throw characters into close proximity. “I think, for most people, experiencing a typhoon would be the most extraordinary event in their lives. Typhoons can utterly destroy lives, but in some cases they also bring about a sense of purification. The night a typhoon hits, I think people tend to discuss the big questions in life.”
If this all makes After the Storm sound like a downer, you can rest assured it is not. Kore-enade clearly loves his characters, flaws and all, and you always get the feeling that despite their melancholy and the hardships they face, they always end his films in a better place. In this respect, he explains, his movies are very much like typhoons.
“The next morning after the typhoon, there’s a scene where we walk through the apartments and it’s all clean and tidy,” he says. ‘It’s always puzzled me, ever since I was a kid, why apartment blocks look so beautiful after a typhoon has passed. Nothing’s actually changed, but it’s like, in just one evening, everything has been radically altered at the same time. That’s the moment I really wanted to capture.”
After the Storm is released 2 Jun by Arrow