Before Michio Koshikawa turned to directorial work, he worked as producer and as film distributor. With his own company Slow Learner, he produces narratives like Masao Adachi’s The Prisoner (2006) and Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s Sketches of Kaitan City (2010). With After the Sunset (2019) Koshikawa presents, after having directed Areno-The wilderness (2015) and Life and Death On The Shores (2017) his third feature-film.
Towa (Towa Matsubara) lives happily together with his mother Satsuki (Maho Yamada) and his father Yuichi (Masaru Nagai), a fisherman, in a coastal town on Nagashima island. But Towa does not know that his father and mother are, in fact, not his real parents. They took him in as a foster-child after the government found him abandoned and completely emaciated at an internet café.
One day, Satsuki and Yuichi finally decide to start the process of legally adopting him. To successfully complete this process, they need birth mother’s consent, her consent of legally revoking her motherhood. Unable to locate Towa’s biological mother and thus gain her consent, Satsuki and Yuichi put their hopes on a favorable decision by the family court. Their hopes are nevertheless short-lived, as the revelation of the mother’s name, Akane Sato (Shihori Kanjiya), uncovers that Towa’s biological mother is living in the village.
After the Sunset is a narrative that explores the importance of being able to assume the position of mother, by way of framing the conflict between two already conflicted subjects, Satsuki and Akane. Satsuki, as subtly evoked by her statement, ‘I’ve become like a mother’ is conflicted (Trans-note 1). While she is happy having a child, she is troubled by the fact that the child is not hers. She may fulfill the function of a mother – Towa as well as her female friends see her as such, Satsuki is, legally speaking, not a mother. Satsuki’s conflict resides, in other words, at the level of the symbolic; it is a conflict concerning the assumption of the signifier ‘mother’. Even though everyone sees her as the mother of Towa, the legal matter makes it unable for her to fully assume this signifier at the level of her subject. This, of course, underlines why the adoption is so important for her.
Akane is conflicted as well, but the structure of this conflict different. While she is legally Towa’s mother, no one sees her as being the mother of Towa. Within the community, she has no right to call herself his mother. This conflict is further complicated by the fact that she, by abandoning him, refused to assume the symbolic position of mother with her subject. Her decision to move to the fishing town is, in this respect, an attempt to assume that what she once refused, her position as mother. That Akane suffers more than Satsuki is understandable, because she is confronted, almost every day, with the sight of Satsuki being the mother she could have been, should have been and wants to be.
Eventually, when Satsuki learn Akane’s secret and her desire Akane to regain her parental rights, both subjects become entangled in a dramatic conflict about the assumption of the symbolic position of the mother. What makes After The Sunset ‘s exploration of this conflict so pleasing is the fact that this conflict between both woman leaves the spectator conflicted too. Both Akane and Satsuki desire to assume the symbolic position of mother with respect to Towa (Narra-note 1, Narra-note 2). As both desires are grounded within the subjectivity of each woman, a clean answer/solution is simply not possible. The difficulty of choosing a side is further empowered by the framing, with various flashbacks, of the problematic situation in which Akane found herself when she abandoned her child. What the exploration of Akane’s troubled past ultimately implies is that Japanese society, more often than not, fails to aid those in need because these institutions neglect the importance of an outreaching approach (Narra-note 3).
The most pleasing aspect of After The Sunset is its atmospheric exploration of the life in a small coastal town. By composing the narrative with a lot of contextualizing shots – exploring the various aspects of the life close at sea, the spectator is given a sense of social fabric of the town as such. We are given an insight in how fishermen work and interact, how dependent the local community is on its fishing industry, how a local restaurant is embedded in the fishing community, how the local elementary school functions within the local community, and how a festival in such a local area unfolds.
Of course, within this exploration of the local community, the position of Satsuki, Yuichi, and Towa remain central. The contextualization of their position, the exploration of the community in function of this familial unit, does not fail to give the dramatic fictional narrative a sense of realism.
The atmosphere of the narrative is function of two different aspect. The first cinematographical element that defines the narrative’s atmosphere is the pleasing naturalistic lightning-design. The second element that supports the atmosphere is the very tempo of the subdued dynamic cinematographical composition. After The Sunset unfolds, visually speaking, its narrative in a slow-moving way. The use of more temporally long shots does not only allow the few musical pieces (string or piano) to come to its full right, but also gives the spectator the opportunity to gently explore the spatial context in which the familial drama unfolds.
That the conflict between Akane and Satsuki is so believable and makes for a gripping drama is mainly due to the strong acting performances of Maho Yamada and Shihori Kanjiya. It is also due to their strong performances that the resolution, despite its rather a-dramatical nature, is emotionally satisfying.
After The Sunset is a gripping drama about motherhood. With a fine sensibility Michio Koshikawa explores the fact that motherhood is not played out at the level of biology, but at the level of society and the signifier. The resolution to the impossible conflict of Akane and Satsuki is satisfactory, but also leaves a bitter aftertaste as it also reverberates the failure of society to aid those in need.
Translation-note 1: In the subtitles of the movie the statement is wrongly translated at ‘I’ve become like my mother’.
Narra-note 1: Akane’s repeated use of the biological ground of her motherhood to assert her right to be Towa’s mother is beside the point within the conflict of attaining the right to be subjected legally to the signifier mother. A biological ground for motherhood does not necessarily mean that a female subject succeeds in fulfilling the position of the mother at the symbolic.
Narra-note 2: While her subjective desire is righteous, her wish to gain her parental rights is also fueled by jealousy and contempt. Her ‘motherly’ desire is muddied by her wish to have what Satsuki has.
Narra-note 3: If the network for those in need could have succeeded to aid Akane before she made her radical decision, the conflict as depicted in this narrative would never have come to pass.