From time to time in Hirokazu Kore-eda's gently incisive family drama After the Storm, the soundtrack produces a few bars of casual whistling backed by a soft fragment of melody that noodles along with its lead character, stalled novelist and private detective Ryôta Shinoda (Hiroshi Abe). As he bumbles through another dispiriting day in the life, we learn that a typhoon is on its way to the Japanese town where he lives. If you've seen any other of Kore-eda's leisurely character studies — Nobody Knows, say, or last year's lovely Our Little Sister — you'll know not to expect much in the way of action, let alone spectacles.
Watch and listen closely, though, and worlds of deeply felt, awkwardly expressed passion will unfold in and around a cramped apartment in a nondescript high-rise that has aged along with the inhabitants who raised families there. There, Ryôta's mother, Yoshiko (Kilin Kiki), ekes out her last years on an income slashed to the rind by her late husband's gambling losses. No victim, she: In her ebulliently acid way Yoshiko is a resilient survivor. Which is more than can be said of her son as he comes and goes, trying to make his peace with a family that doesn't exactly run on oiled wheels.
Every Kore-eda family portrait functions, the director has said, as an inquiry from different angles into his own early experience. Almost invariably there's a feckless father; maternal dragons in various shades of bracing; and in the foreground a floundering younger generation struggling not to repeat their elders' mistakes even as they do that very thing. As lost souls go, Ryôta may be Kore-eda's most hapless: Tall and handsome but red-eyed and long-faced, this man-child with shirt perennially untucked walks with the shambling, head-down gait of one who fears he's as much of a screw-up as his father.
While gathering material for a new novel that's not noticeably getting written, Ryôta shakes down cheaters and adulterers for his sleazy boss at the agency, then squanders his meager earnings at the racetrack instead of paying child support to his beautiful ex-wife Kyoko (Yoko Maki), whom he clearly loves as much as he does his sweet young son (Taiyo Yoshizawa) whom he manages to serially fail. It's telling that Ryôta still seeks validation from his plainspoken mother, who has her son's number ("You're taking too long to bloom") but who, we will see, has given up neither on him nor on life.
As always, Kor-eda offers little by way of plot. Instead he builds the dynamic between his characters out of an accumulating wealth of seemingly banal detail: A woman wordlessly vacuuming up broken glass; a tangerine tree that bears no blossom or fruit but "I water it every day like it's you"; a man obsessively rummaging through drawers for the wrong treasure. Like his creator, Ryôta is a meticulous observer of others. But he's pretty clueless about his own motives until the arrival of the typhoon brings the family together, not entirely by accident, for the night in his mother's apartment.
If Yoshiko provides much of the movie's tartly unsentimental comedy (who else would make someone a gift of her son's umbilical cord?), she's also the source of its wisdom and the carrier of Kore-eda's insight into how mired we are in self-defeating delusion, how harsh in our judgment of others, how wacky in our fantasies that Action A will lead inexorably to Desired Outcome B. Before the film's end, more than one member of this patched-together, clumsily durable family will cry out piteously that things weren't supposed to turn out like this.
On paper such insights can seem trite, but Kore-eda fills them to the brim with the rich muddle of life, of endless aspiration, repeated failure, unlooked-for internal reboots. Near the end of the movie, Ryôta and two of his imperfectly loved ones sit out the storm inside a ridiculous pink structure in a nearby park, eating stale cookies and sharing memories. There's no Hollywood ending here, only a mutual nudging toward rueful understanding of how to go forward, and the creation of one of those cherished moments out of which, in the gospel according to Kore-eda, the good life is built.