A small-scale, satisfying human drama that backs gradually into larger matters, “After the Storm” is the latest deceptive miniature from Japan’s Hirokazu Kore-eda (“After Hours,” “Nobody Knows”). It’s the story of a man who’s at that point where a feckless youth is beginning to look like a wasted life; the movie asks our understanding and even forgiveness of him before he can begin to forgive himself.
Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) is tall and handsome yet starting to go to seed. A writer with one early novel and literary prize under his belt, he works for a private detective agency, telling himself he’s gathering notes for his fiction but mostly gambling away his salary and blackmailing errant spouses to keep his snapshots of their affairs private.
It’s beginning to look as though Ryota will turn out to be much like his father, to everyone’s regret. The old man has recently passed away, and his widow, Yoshiko (Kiki Kirin), is wasting no time in cleaning house after 63 years of marriage. What she hasn’t thrown out, the deceased has already pawned, leaving Ryota with few resources to make ends meet. In addition to the rent, he owes child support to his ex-wife, Kyoko (Yoko Maki), who has given up all hope that this man-child will get his act together.
Onto this slender dramatic structure, Kore-eda builds a wealth of observation, keeping the mood unjudgmental and even light as Ryota’s despair slowly deepens. (The frisky, philosophical humor of veteran actress Kirin goes a long way toward balancing the tone, as does Abe’s hangdog charm in the lead.) As we watch Ryota discreetly stalk his teenage son (Taiyo Yoshizawa), turn down a lucrative offer to write a manga (too lowbrow for his gifts), and exasperate a younger but wiser co-worker (Sosuke Ikematsu), a theme emerges: If we are never who we thought we would be, we should never lose sight who that person was.
The action takes place during Japan’s rainy season, somewhere between Typhoons #23 and #24, the latter providing a long, perceptive night of balancing accounts as Ryota, his son, and his ex-wife are cooped up in the grandmother’s tiny high-rise apartment. The hero hopes for reconciliation, but this is too wise and too kind a film for that.
Kore-eda is prolific — 17 features in 26 years — and he can be uneven; he uses the lightest of brushes to paint the weightiest of issues, such as how to carry on in the face of life’s mounting disappointments. Sometimes the approach turns sugary in his hands, but in “After the Storm” — as with last year’s incandescent “Our Little Sister,” with which it was concurrently filmed — the director keeps his characters and audience bobbing together over waters that grow deeper and deeper, until it’s impossible to distinguish the everyday from the profound.
In this, Kore-eda is like his most obvious influence, the great 20th century director Yasujiro Ozu. If the younger filmmaker lacks the master’s formal rigor, his empathetic curiosity about we wayward humans is just as strong. The film culminates in an image to still one’s heart with sadness and joy: a family chasing lottery tickets that blow away in the wind, forever out of reach.
AFTER THE STORM
Written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. Starring Hiroshi Abe, Kiki Kirin, Yoko Maki. At Kendall Square. 117 minutes. Unrated (as PG). In Japanese, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.