The complexities of failure and one’s acceptance of it are compellingly examined in director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest film After the Storm.
The story follows Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), a struggling novelist employed at a private detective agency in Tokyo. Ryota claims the job is temporary, and his only reason for taking the position is to conduct research for his next novel. Unfortunately Ryota, like his late father, wastes his money on gambling and can barely pay child support. This frustrates his mother Yoshiko (Kilin Kiki) and ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki) to no end, who wish Ryota would recognize the hurt he is causing, especially to his 11-year old son Shingo (Taiyo Yoshizawa). As a typhoon approaches the city the family ends up spending an evening at Yoshiko’s apartment, giving Ryota the opportunity to either reconcile with those he loves, or watch the relationships crumble beyond repair.
What Kore-eda focuses on are the perceptions and expectations associated with success, or more bluntly the dream of the individual. The idea of the dream, especially in American culture, is perhaps the single most influential cultural element affecting the consciousness of the population. As promoted by everyone from entertainers to politicians, it is not only an option but a duty to pursue one’s dreams, and that if you just work hard enough, despite your education and social background, you’ll surely succeed.
Now this notion and the criticisms surrounding it are nothing new, but what Kore-eda does is not simply dissect the pursuit of dreams, but rather the emotional adjustments the individual makes in compensating for personal disappointment. How many times has an individual said, “Well, I didn’t reach that goal, but the journey led me to where I was really supposed to be.” This attitude has become almost as romanticized as dreaming itself, as if an admission of failure or unfulfillment is reprehensible. There’s great social pressure on the individual to remain in control of their desires, and at some point the entire process becomes a survival exercise. Failure cannot be accepted, and even if one has to alter their preferences and histories in order to accommodate new life developments then so be it. The greatest sin of many societies is to admit to others and yourself that you’re not what you want to be.
Kore-eda certainly acknowledges and explores the complexities of this phenomenon, but also looks at what happens when a character says, “Yes, I’m not who I want to be.” One does not have to pretend to be content with the failure of one path and the practical acceptance of another. In the film, Ryota says he’s working at a detective agency because he’s doing research for his next novel. The truth is he’s in crippling debt and hasn’t written a word in years. But time and again he goes to great lengths to uphold this fallacy; in large part because his personal and professional existence depends on it. If one must relinquish the dream they’ve been pursuing their entire adult life, then their viability in this reality comes into question.
Uniquely, Kore-eda gives his characters permission to admit and accept their feelings of defeat. This is by no means a strategy in which his characters sulk and drone on and on about their frustrations with the world. Rather, Kore-eda wants the viewer to examine their own conceptions of failure, and rather than absorb and promote the excuses that will endear one to social expectations, to instead recognize the responsibilities of the present. Ryota thinks money alone will allow him to be a successful father and author, and if he can just pick the right lottery ticket or bike racer then all his worries will vanish. Rarely will the easy fix render stability to one’s life, and often it is not the failure of the dream that is most detrimental, but the failure in recognizing the required duties of the present moment.
Kore-eda captures the complex strategies of survival not just through the performances of his actors, but by transforming the environments into characters themselves. Much of the filming took place at the Asahigaoka Housing Complex in Kyose, Tokyo, where Kore-eda himself lived between the ages of 9 and 28. Through cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki’s rich compositions the viewer sees a dwelling that didn’t live up to its expectations either. What was once a popular multi-dwelling home built all over Japan now sits forgotten and dilapidated, its aging residents monotonously moving about its corridors and weighed down by the nostalgia and desire for their youth. No detail goes unused in Kore-eda’s hands, and rightly each element is considered essential in cementing the themes of the narrative and progressing the story forward.
Ultimately, with tremendous intelligence and skill, Kore-eda pries apart popular notions of failure and presents a depiction of human struggle that is moving and insightful. It’s easy to have a character say, “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” For Kore-eda though, the more important and difficult question is, “Why is it supposed to be like this?”
After the Storm is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.