By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 24, 2017)
Back in February of this year, my dear mother passed away, at the age of 86. While she had been weathering a plethora of health issues for a number of years, the straw that ultimately claimed her (pancreatic cancer) was diagnosed mere weeks before she died. In fact, her turn for the worse was so sudden that my flight to Ohio turned into a grim race; near as I could figure, my plane was on final approach to Canton-Akron Airport when she slipped away (I arrived at her bedside an hour after she had died). And yes, that was hard.
Since I obviously wasn’t present during (what turned out to be) her final days, I asked my brother if she had any “final words”. At first, he chuckled a little through the tears, recounting that several days prior, she had turned to him at one point and said “I wish I had some wisdom to impart. But I don’t.” I laughed (Jewish fatalism-it’s a cultural thing).
Then, he remembered something. The hospice room where my mother spent her last week had a picture window facing west, with a view of a field, a pond, a small stand of trees, and an occasional deer spotting. Two days before she was gone, my mother, my father, and my brother were quietly enjoying this pastoral scene with the bonus of a lovely sunset. My mother broke the silence with 3 simple words: “Trees are important.”
I’ve been mulling over those words. What did she mean? Indeed, trees are important. They are, in a literal sense, the very lungs of the Earth. As a metaphor, I must consider the foundational significance that The Tree of Life holds in Judaism. Was she “imparting wisdom” after all? Had she, at the end her journey, reached what Paddy Chayefsky once called a “cleansing moment of clarity” about The Things That Really Matter? Granted, it may not be as cinematic as “Rosebud”, but it’s at the very least a kissin’ cousin to a Zen koan. If I’d been there, I might’ve responded with something profound, like “Nicely put.”
I believe that is why, only three minutes in to writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s elegant new family drama, After the Storm, I found myself suddenly and unexpectedly choking up over an exchange between a mother and a daughter during the opening scene. Perhaps I should say that my reaction was all at once unexpected…yet immediately understood.
“You’ll go senile being alone all the time,” a middle-aged woman named Chinatsu (Satomi Kobayashi) admonishes her recently-widowed mother (Kirin Kiki), “Go out and make friends.” Not missing a beat as she merrily bustles about the kitchen, Mom wryly rejoins “New friends at my age only mean more funerals.” Then, returning to stirring the simmering pot on the stove, the mother muses softly (half to herself), “The flavor sinks into the ingredients, if you cool it down slowly and let it sit overnight. Just like people.”
“Nicely put,” says a visibly surprised Chinatsu, with a smile.
“Nicely put” is how I would, in general, describe Kore-eda’s flair for dialogue throughout this wise, quietly observant and at times genuinely witty take on the prodigal son story.
The prodigal is Chinatsu’s younger brother Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), who has been drifting away from his sister and their mother in the wake of his divorce from Kyoko (Yoko Maki). While he is basically good-hearted, Ryota is a classic man-child who seems to be his own worst enemy. He works as a private detective, which he insists is not a “job”, but rather, “research” for a novel he is allegedly formulating. He actually is a published writer; his debut novel earned him a (relatively obscure) book award. However, that was some time ago, and his literary license for reveling in past glories has definitely expired.
He has also long ago squandered any monies earned, due to his compulsive gambling habit. This propensity also keeps him in arrears on child support payments for his 11 year-old son Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa). He treasures his weekly visitations with Shingo; however Kyoko is threatening to cut them off if he doesn’t stay caught up on payments.
Ryota still carries the torch for his ex-wife; he enlists his partner at the detective agency to help do a little extra-curricular surveillance on Kyoko, and is distressed to see that she appears to be happily ensconced with a new boyfriend. His partner indulges him, but wisely counsels that perhaps it is time to let go, just as Kyoko seems to have moved on.
But fate and circumstance conspire (I’m saying it) one dark and stormy night to force an awkward family reunion; Ryota, Kyoko and Shingo hunker down to ride out a typhoon in his mother’s cramped apartment. This sets the stage for the third act, which is essentially a chamber piece about love, late-blooming “maturity”, and the renewal of family bonds.
It’s inevitable to draw comparisons here with the work of one of the masters of Japanese cinema, Yasujiro Ozu (1903-1963), whose name has become synonymous with such quietly observant family dramas. That being said, Kore-eda, while no less subtle than Ozu-san, is slightly less formal in his approach. In this respect, his film reminds me more of contemporary director Mike Leigh, another film maker who specializes in narratives regarding modern family dynamics, imbued with a seldom-matched sense of authenticity.
All the performances are beautifully nuanced; particularly when Abe and scene-stealer Kiki are onscreen. Kudos as well to DP Yutaka Yamazaki’s painterly cinematography, and Hanargumi’s lovely soundtrack. Granted, some could find the proceedings too nuanced and “painterly”, but those with patience will be rewarded. It may be true, as Tom Waits says, that “things are tough all over, when the thunderstorms start”, but after the storm, all is renewed. Kore-eda’s film reminds us that families, like trees, are important.
For my mother