Kore-eda’s second fiction feature sees him take on themes of memory and the afterlife through a meta-cinematic lens.
Dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda
1998 | Japan | Drama | 118 mins | 1.66:1 | Japanese
PG (passed clean)
Cast: Arata Iura, Erika Oda, Susumu Terajima
Plot: After death, people have just one week to choose only a memory to keep for eternity.
Awards: Official Selection (Toronto)
International Sales: Celluloid Dreams
Subject Matter: Moderate/Life-Affirming
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed on DVD)
A bit of trivia: I wanted to screen Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life for Perspectives Film Festival nine years ago, but it didn’t happen. That year’s festival was about reality versus fiction, and in Kore-eda’s work, that grey line separating the two realms is manifested as memory and the afterlife.
After turning heads with Maborosi (1995), Kore-eda’s second fiction feature continued his upward trajectory as an emerging Japanese filmmaker destined for greatness. Looking back, one might see After Life as a slighter film of his, in what is a warm and compassionate treatment of death.
It is Monday as one person after another enter a center to register their attendance. These people have just passed on, but before they can move on to (presumably) heaven, this ‘in-between’ place allows them to share one memory that they wish to take with them forever.
By Saturday, the center’s counsellors, whom we will get to know as they in turn get to know their interviewees, will shoot a scene of each person’s described memory and screen it to them. This is where After Life’s meta-cinematic lens proves intriguing not just in its thematic treatment, but that it indirectly says a lot of the need to preserve the history of cinema for posterity.
While some of these ‘afterlife interviews’ were scripted, many were done impromptu, with real people (not actors) reminiscing about their own lives.
There are quite a number of characters, be it the recently deceased or the counsellors (also deceased) who have worked in the center for quite some time without a memory to take on with them. There is no clear focus at the onset, but slowly certain characters begin to hog the spotlight.
One of them, an old man named Ichiro who can’t seem to choose his favourite memory, is given more than 70 videotapes (each representing one year of his life) to look at. One might note how genteel this treatment of the VHS is as compared to the J-horror classic Ringu, released in the same year.
Another, an old lady who loves cherry blossoms is quiet and keeps to herself, but the connection with her interviewer slowly takes shape to become unexpectedly moving. On the other side, Shiori, a young trainee counselor, has a crush on her colleague, Takashi, who would find out something revelatory from one of the newly-deceased.
Kore-eda’s control of tone is remarkable insofar as the film doesn’t feel at all strange despite its seemingly preposterous concept. After Life is certainly thought-provoking, not least that it also asks of us to think: what memory would we choose to keep when we die?