These days, it seems that films by Hirokazu Kore-eda come and go like seasons. That is, much like each spring or each summer, each Kore-eda family drama is both immediately comparable to and distinct from the one before it, and lingers, blurry, in the memory the same way. (This latest one played at Cannes last May, and is filtering through American arthouses now). As every review is more or less obligated to mention, Kore-eda owes a conscious debt to the masterpieces of Yasujiro Ozu, whose own string of family portraits from the 40s to the 60s—often titled after seasons, for that matter—are among the most revered/fetishized films in cinema history. Though he lacks the dextrous subtlety found in Ozu’s best work, Kore-eda borrows much from the late legend: the stillness of the camera, the contemplative rhythm, the unending context of daily life, the focus on different generations of a family unit, and a somewhat oblique or even indifferent approach to the idea of “plot”. Any plot summary of After the Storm might say that it’s about a loving but damaged family sharing space under a roof during a typhoon, but by the time the typhoon arrives, well into the movie, you’ll have gathered that the “storm” of the title is really a divorce. Ozu fans might spot a fleeting reference to someone named “Noriko”, the same name as Ozu’s immortal heroine who was always in want of a husband, and the quick nod exists if only to ask what becomes of Ozu’s recurring theme of marriage traditions at a time when marriage can be less an institution and more a relationship with built-in impermanence.
So where to begin? Kore-eda’s hero is a private detective and erstwhile writer stuck on his next novel—he’s a late-bloomer, his family optimistically puts it—while nursing a gambling addiction and generally struggling to act like a responsible adult. He and his wife have split, he only infrequently gets to see his son, and a new man has entered the picture. You could play a strange Hollywood parlor game with all the ways this material—a detective spying on his ex, a rebuilt father-son bond, a family divided but forced into close quarters—could power everything from screwball comedy to melodramatic schmaltz. (Indeed, one of Kore-eda’s last films, the exquisite Like Father, Like Son (2013), had American remake rumors swirling around it a few years ago, so we may get to see such theories in action). But Kore-eda is more interested in character than plot, in details over incidences, in acceptance over climax. Why else, for instance, would he include several asides about the hero’s widowed mother taking lessons on classical music—a strand that has no conflict, let alone resolution—except to show that life always goes on? And so After the Storm is both a story and a group of people you get to know, spotting their problems, their dynamics, their reasons. In the film’s smartest stroke, the family’s patriarch has recently passed away, and unless I blinked at the wrong time, you never see his image at all—no photos, no recordings—but slowly come to grasp how the flaws of that unseen man have been passed down. It is a humble film in scope, but paradoxically, it’s also the first new release I’ve seen this year made with the old-fashioned belief that a movie can reveal something meaningful about the human experience. That’s not to say it fully succeeds, or that expecting a truly profound epiphany for $12 isn’t a lot to ask. But if you’re willing to slow down, it is a work of lovely miniaturism, dotted with moments of grace, sadness, and small triumph. Key line, spoken by a minor character: “For better or worse, it’s part of my life.”