Chasing Life’s Lottery

By Tim Winterstein

“And you may find yourself/Living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself/In another part of the world
And you may find yourself/Behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house/With a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, well/How did I get here?”

So goes the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime.” The song could be heard as a criticism of acquiring these things and experiences. But not according to David Byrne, who sang it: “’We’re largely unconscious,’ Byrne says. ‘You know, we operate half awake or on autopilot and end up, whatever, with a house and family and job and everything else, and we haven’t really stopped to ask ourselves, “How did I get here?”’”

Those conflicting interpretations make it a perfect theme song for After the Storm (Umi yori mo mada fukaku – which, because I don’t know Japanese, Google translate [and IMDB] says is “Still deeper than the sea,” a lyric in a song that appears in the film; streaming on Amazon Prime).

We are conditioned by the fact that we tell stories to think of our lives as stories. There is something natural and innate to human storytelling. But the things that happen in movies in particular usually bear little resemblance to what we might think of as a common, ordinary life. I doubt anyone would be interested in a film made of my life, for example. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s brilliance (I’m looking forward to his newest film, Shoplifters) is to take these ordinary lives and give them a sort of tragic poetry which is, at the same time, quietly hopeful. The writing and the acting are so seamless that I really did feel as if I was spying and eavesdropping on a family’s private interactions.

The film forces us to ask, especially in the malaise of middle-age, “What is a life, actually?” Because first we look forward to things and reach for them, and then we find ourselves thinking back and trying to regain things we once had, which is emphasized by the conversation between Ryôta and his mother late in the movie. More than once, a character says, “Things should not have turned out this way.” How did they get to where they are? None of them would have considered the current situation to be ideal. After Ryôta asks Shingo, his son, what he wants to be when he grows up, Shingo asks his dad if he is now what he wanted to be. No, he says, but life is in always trying to become what you want to be. Whether Ryôta believes that himself or not is another question.

It is a story about unexpected, even unwanted, outcomes, but it is also a story about choices and how far those choices go in making us who we are. We make choices ourselves, but why do those choices so often bear a striking resemblance to the choices of our parents? In After the Storm, handwriting, buying lottery tickets, and wasting money all become indicators of who we are, whether we like it or not. Ryôta finds himself defending his choices and actions because they are who he is. He has moments of self-reflection but can’t seem to change the trajectory of his life.

The English title is a little misleading at first, because the actual storm doesn’t arrive until over an hour into the film. And yet it gives the viewer a metaphor: the storm comes, whether you want it to or not. Sometimes it destroys things and you’re left to pick up the pieces—not as you’d like them to be but as they are. You find some of the things and some of them you lose, like soaked lottery tickets blowing around in a typhoon. You can chase them all you want, but the storm will keep at least some of them. You can keep asking, “How did I get here?” or you can do your best with what’s left to you.