After the Storm: We Never End Up Being Whom We Dreamed To Be
After the Storm has the director Hirokazu Koreeda’s signature style: not so enthusiastic about making intense and highlighted conflicts, nor so inclined to make characters desperate or have them fight against their fates. He creates things as they are supposed to be in real lives—ordinary people don't often have extraordinarily exciting lives or life-or-death moments. More often than not, they savor the petty worries, the seemingly accessible small happiness or moving moments as well as the disappointment after repeated yet useless struggles for a better life as their lives slide away unnoticed.
After the Storm is a film about a middle-aged “loser”, Ryota and his specific and unsolvable problems: his ex-wife is seeing a more successful man, which makes him jealous; he wants to get his son some sportswear but can’t afford; he once had a promising career in writing, but it has been 15 years since he won a prize in literature, and he is unable to make a further move in career; his lives beyond his means, unable to pay rents or support for his son; his plan of gambling his way out of this bitter life has failed and makes his life even worse; when he is cornered, he has to steal from his mother, trying to snitch some of her pension or find his late father’s “antiques”…
Ryota’s petty and miserable life is quite depressing, but he is not any more of a loser than most people. Most of us may go through tough times in their lives, as depressed, and miserable as Ryota is. The true pain in our lives lies not in the insufficient material supplies but in the helplessness when one is stuck in the mud after he or she aimed high for his or her life. Had Ryota not been a successful writer, he would probably have settled for being an ordinary office worker, leading an ordinary life. But Ryota couldn't settle, because he was once a “writer”, a man who had hopes for his life and himself. When Ryota is confined in the gap between ideals and reality, he fights, unwilling to give up, yet to no avail. All he can do is to sigh wistfully.
The plot of the film is divided into three stages, in parallel with the expected storm. Before the storm comes, everything looks peaceful and natural, but deep down, Ryota has already been trapped like a beast unable to get out (69 minutes of the film). On the night of the storm, Ryota’s mother meddles and makes Ryota, his ex-wife and his son stay together. They even hide under the children’s slide on the playground and enjoy a family moment in the storm (39 minutes). After the storm, Ryota, his ex-wife and son are like a normal family, rushing to the subway station with his mother waving goodbye on the balcony (6 minutes). No need to say that the film is reserved and self-controlled as a whole. Things are portrayed more in details before the storm, about every aspect of Ryota’s life, such as his relationship with Machida, his malpractices at work, his conflicts with his sister and his contradictory feelings for his ex-wife. In other words, the film develops a part which is supposed to be an establishment into a film, and then it provides a delusional way out for Ryota on the storm night. With his family seemingly reunited, everything he has lost comes back. After the storm, in the last few minutes of the movie, Ryota puts on his father’s shirt, picks himself up from inside, and has new hopes for his life, as it seems.
From the length of each stage, it can be seen that the filmmakers don't want to give too much hope to Ryota, and they don't even want the audience to believe that every kind and persistent soul could finally succeed. All they do is objectively and honestly present life as it is, putting aside all the judgements and emotions. This is indeed one of the highlights of this film, namely the use of documentary-like details and scenes to call for resonance of the audience with the characters as they feel for their struggles in the film.
In the meantime, to make the film different from those “zero distance documentary” films, this film also gives some insights about human lives casually. For example, one of Ryota’s clients, a woman says: “Which wrong step have I taken in my life?” “No matter which road I choose to take, it is my life after all.” These words provoke Ryota’s thoughts, and he even writes them down on his notebook. Ryota’s mother says, “Men are always chasing things they have already lost and dreaming of things they would never make real.” “You can’t have happiness for nothing.” Even Ryota’s boss quotes a Buddhist chant: “You are a mature grown-up only if you have the courage to become the past tense of someone else’s life.” These lines are carefully woven into the daily conversations in the film, so they don't sound out of place; instead, they inspire and touch the audience. However, although the film intends to show how ordinary people could go down, it has depicted Ryota as a flawed person (he gambles, steals his mother’s money and his father’s antiques, refuses to pay child support, commits jobbery and even blackmails), which not only influences the audience’s view on him but also jeopardizes the establishment of the entire theme of the film. The audience may be led to believe that the tragic life of Ryota’s is not caused by the unpredictable life or cruel fate but his own personality and moral defects. It may make the typicality of the main character unconvincing.
The Japanese title of this film could be literally translated into “Deeper than the Sea”. It is a line from the lyrics of a song originally performed by Teresa Teng. The title may be a question from the filmmakers: Can someone’s love be deeper than the sea? To the characters in the film, such deep love is like luxury because they are struggling to survive. However, beyond daily struggles for survival and life, we all have or had great hopes and disappointments, a desire and regret that we hide deeper than the sea, that is, we never end up being whom we dreamed to be and living the life we dreamed to live.