Movie Review: Japanese family ponders a future “After the Storm”

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The greatest pleasure in the films of Hirozaku Kore-eda is the way they unfold, or rather unwrap. The films — “Shoplifters” is the most famous in the West, but “Our Little Sister” and “Like Father, Like Son” have also reached these shores, come in layers, telling one story, revealing another, another underneath it and so on.

“After the Storm” is one of his subtlest works, a beautifully layered and light, bittersweet and forlorn story built on a phrase anyone over 40 has heard or uttered.

“Why did my life turn out like this?”

When we meet Ryôta (Hiroshi Abe), he’s the second visitor to his mother’s flat after the death of his father. Neighbors treat him like a prodigal son, even though he doesn’t live that many neighborhoods away from Kiyose, Tokyo.

He’s tall, not at all well-dressed. And every time his mother’s back is turned, he’s rummaging through their apartment, hunting for cash or something of value “to remember him by.”

We learn he’s a novelist. He’s won prizes. He was “the star” of his high school class, and almost famous — at least in the old neighborhood. He says he’s fine for money. But he grimaces when all he runs across are pawn tickets. Dad, it turns out, was a gambler.

It turns out, he is, too. A little ready cash and he’s off to bet on the bike races, or buying LOTTO tickets. He lives in a hovel and doesn’t pay his bills. It turns out “he USED to be a novelist.” Now, he’s with a low-rent private detective agency, not above shaking down clients for extra cash.

It turns out he’s divorced, and he’s in the habit of spying on his beautiful, remote and OVER his nonsense ex (Yôko Maki), their ball-playing son (Taiyô Yoshizawa) and the ex’s new beau. About all he truly has left is his pride. One of his many lies is to his publisher, who’d love for him to script a new manga (comic book). But no, Ryôta is still “researching and writing” his latest book. That’s how he explains the private eye work.

He hears a LOT of quotable profundities from his holding-up but broken mother (Satomi Kobayashi), his boss, his younger partner (Sôsuke Ikematsu).

“Men only realize they’re in love after they’ve lost their beloved.”

He writes some of them down, only to ball up the paper. He declares “I didn’t want to turn out like Dad,” but he has, right down to buying his kid his first LOTTO ticket, just as his father did.

Abe is a mesmerizing presence, not entirely stoic as Ryôta hides his pain, strings people along and tries not to show how he’s at the end of his tether.

Kore-eda peels away the layers of this family and Ryôta’s story building towards the latest typhoon headed their way. It is the third act’s riding out of that storm that this light and faintly despairing tale, with its almost-comic anti-hero, turns poignant.

“After the Storm” lacks the deep mystery and hard edge of “Shoplifters,” which rivaled “Parasite” in its bitter, satiric bite. But it heralded Kore-eda’s arrival as one of Japan’s most thought-provoking filmmakers, and most exportable. It should send you, as it did me, into the assorted streaming services hunting down his back catalog and waiting eagerly for his next.

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MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Hiroshi Abe, Yôko Maki, Satomi Kobayashi, Sôsuke Ikematsu, Taiyô Yoshizawa

Credits: Written and directed by Hirozaku Kore-eda. streaming Film Movement Plus release.

Running time: 1:57

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