Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Umi yori mo mada fukaku

(This was first published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in its June 2017 issue.)

Dignity for a man is often found, or rather sought, in his father: he hero-worships him, and he would rather be the son of someone he can look up to and whom society respects. When society does not, the man, right from his earliest years as a boy, is often forced to choose: either continue believing in his father and seeking endearing traits in him, and thus know that his father is indeed worthy of his love and respect, or bear the painful reality and feel an orphan even more, hating probably even himself. In either circumstance, the result is a humiliating loss of innocence, to which the subconscious hardly ever comes to terms. For in later life, the search for a worthy father often morphs into the search for one's own self—a search either for someone who, through being like the father, excuses the father, or for someone who, by seeking to be everything that the father was not, either in imagination or reality, tries to alienate the father and shrug off that tainted appendage. And yet, is that even possible?

Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda has grappled with this same question in many of his works, including in Kiseki (I Wish), Soshite chichi ni naru (Like Father, Like Son), and most notably Umi yori mo mada fukaku (int'l title: After the Storm). A society like Japan—in which the pursuit of excellence imbues even the mode of death and in which mediocrity can be looked down upon with withering scorn—gives Koreeda fertile ground for exploring a world where individuals are judged to be able or not able. As a result of this environment, innocence is lost early for a child and love often cedes place to confusion about should one love? When judgement enters the realm of instinct, you know innocence has been impaired and the child is no more.

After the Storm tells the story of three generations: with Hiroshi Abe, playing Ryôta, the connecting link. In Ryôta, Koreeda has created a loveable character: he is a son to a dead father and a living mother, and is a father to a son who is becoming more distant by the day and questioning whether Ryôta is worthy enough. Ryôta grapples with this same question about himself and also about his dead father. But even if Ryôta were able not to think about his self-doubts, society, including his own family, is there to remind him of his mediocrity as a writer whose career never took off and as a part-time detective who does nothing noble and does not even earn enough to pay his ex-wife the agreed amount for his son's upkeep.

However, despite his poverty, Ryôta is defiant—defiant enough not to sell out his writing for a genre he doesn't respect; defiant enough to keep buying dreams for himself and for his son. It is this aspect that makes Koreeda's film such a great watch and Ryôta a character that one connects with. Ryôta knows that when the storm has gone and the sunshine returned, there may be trees that have fallen down, but there will also be seeds that have been planted and that some of them will grow, having received both rain and sunshine. He knows that dreams are what sustain a human being, or at least a human being's goodness, and that once-planted, they are sometimes hard to dislodge, even under the scorn of society. Ryôta knows that seeds, and dreams, need to be planted with persistence and belief. For then, when the storm has finished, he will be able to recognise the belief that his father planted in him and will witness how he has managed to plant some in his own son.

Judgement had entered Ryôta's heart, seeping through society, but the storm has cleansed him, and as a result, his love for his father, his faith in himself and his hope for his son have all sprouted anew. It will matter less to him now if his ex-wife takes him back: because the storm has made him again innocent in a way, or rather now, he can choose to be innocent. Ryôta can finally be free.

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