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4.2 out of 5 stars13
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on 16 December 2013
Kore-eda Hirokazu is among the very best Japanese directors working right now and After Life (1998) is his second feature film. He has been likened to Ozu Yasujirō and Hou Hsiao Hsien in terms of style, but it strikes me that his films are marked more by documentary film techniques which put him at a distance from these two. Still Walking (2008) is undeniably an Ozuian shomingeki (family home drama), but with 5 of his 14 films being documentaries and hand-held camerawork, amateur actors and improvisation figuring largely in the rest of his work, Kore-eda has carved out a niche for himself touching on very real contemporary problems in Japanese society in a unique and special way. While Nobody Knows (2004), I Wish (2011) and the recent Like Father Like Son (2013) showcase his ability to extract fine performances from children, After Life focuses very sharply and movingly on the way we look back and make sense out of our lives, and how these memories are translated onto film.

The story is fairly simple, opening on the rushing feet of two people going up a flight of stairs to enter an office. They join a meeting where a group of workers (we later learn they are social counselors) are informed by their boss that a new intake of people are about to arrive for an as yet unexplained purpose. We cut to the foyer of the same run-down public building (an old school?) with a number of people entering out of a blinding light. They register and are told to wait in a room. When everyone is assembled they are informed that counselors will interview them one by one. It turns out that all these people have died the previous day and that they are now in a half-way house en-route to ‘the great beyond’. The counselors are there to help them choose over a period of a week one memory from the whole of their lives which they can take with them forever, everything else to be erased. These memories are taken down by the counselors and then filmed to the best of their ability. These films are shown to the group members and as they see their own memory recreated on the big screen they disappear one by one.

I think it’s worth saying at the start that this is not a religious film. A possibly preachy story about heaven and hell would no doubt put off a number of people and this film is remarkable for the complete absence of any such dogma. Instead, as each person looks back on their past we have an extraordinary kaleidoscope of memories which sum up collectively the rich tapestry of human life. Kore-eda has said that he used improvisation freely in the first part of the film which consists of talking heads being interviewed across a table and that many of the memories related are ‘real’. One old man Shoda Gisuke (Yuri Tōru) can think back only to carnal pleasures while another remembers a childhood trip on a tram. One man recollects the joy of piloting an airplane while another recounts the simplicity of lying naked on a futon as a baby and being bathed in the glorious late afternoon light. A retired soldier recalls eating rice cooked by US soldiers in the Phillipines during the war while a senile old lady (Nishimura Kiyo) luxuriates in her memories of cherry blossoms. A woman wants to recreate a childhood memory of swinging between bamboo trees, another of dancing in a red dress and yet another of an affair with a married man. The memories range from the comic (a teenage girl recalling the tacky joys of Tokyo Disneyland’s Splash Mountain) to the tragic (the loss of a love). The most problematic cases are those who refuse point-blank to decide (Iseya Yusuke), and those whose lives were so dull and boring that they have nothing they want to remember. Such a case is Watanabe Ichiro (Naitō Taketoshi) and it’s the way his personal life tangles with that of his counselor Mochizuki Takashi (Iura Arata) and (by extension) assistant counselor Satonaka Shiori (Oda Erika) that provides the dramatic heart of the latter half of the film. It is in the memory Watanabe finally chooses that we encounter Kagawa Kyōko (veteran of classic films by Ozu, Kurosawa and Mizoguchi from the 1950s) playing his wife. It would be telling too much to describe the story completely, but you can believe that what transpires is intensely moving. What could have been sentimental mush in other hands is translated through Kore-eda’s fly on the wall documentary style as tender and extremely moving.

Kore-eda never gives away the cause of each person’s death, but we can make fair guesses from the way they choose or don’t choose their memories. Shiori is possibly the unhappiest of the counselors and through her the director explores contemporary society where many young people lead empty materialistic lives, can’t communicate with their parents and feel rejected at every turn. Her crush on Mochizuki is rendered subtly in the restrained manner of Japanese culture and her final conundrum will resonate deeply within anyone who has ever suffered rejection on a regular basis in their personal lives. I’m itching to give a more analytical review of this film, but to do so would give away too much. I simply urge anyone with an interest in Japanese cinema and in the basic metaphysics of why we live to watch this film closely.

The English title After Life is slightly misleading given that the Japanese title is Wandafuru Raifu and refers specifically to Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1949). That is also the story of a man who makes sense of his life by being separated from it so that he can look back dispassionately and assess the reality of what it has added up to. Kore-eda manages to convey the same level of spiritual uplift as that film, but without the sentimentality or the religious subtext. I defy anyone who is engaged by this simple and compassionate little gem to not come away thinking about their own lives deeply. What memory would you choose? Have you achieved anything in your life which you’d like to remember forever? What have you contributed? What has been the meaning of your life? In a way After Life is today’s modern-day answer to Kurosawa Akira’s masterpiece, Ikiru (1953).

This region 2 Soda Pictures DVD is very good quality. I have no gripes over the clear 4x3 (1:1.77) aspect ratio and clear soundtrack. Aside from a tiny stills gallery there are no extras which is a shame. Kore-eda is hardly a household name in the West though the TV series Going My Home (2012) has made him famous here in Japan. Like Father Like Son did get a prize at Cannes this year and hopefully will get more attention for him. I notice After Life is being offered in a cheap box set together with Nobody Knows, Still Walking and Air Doll. That would appear to be the best way of buying this as the other three films are also well worth having. For those who are unsure this cheap single disc Soda release is perfectly recommendable.
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on 3 May 2008
After Life, revolves around the recently departed spending a week in a hostel, with their personal counsellor. Everybody has three days to pick the happiest memory of their life, which will be recreated and filmed by the staff. It is this footage, which the souls get to take with them into eternity (and not the memory itself). Of course nothing is simple and one's definition of happiness is likely to be a startling contrast to another's. Decisions are made, changed and evolved until the cameras roll and the footage is shot.

Koreeda has created a profound concept of heaven - or to be more precise, the after life. There is no judgement, blame or hell - simply a request that the dead examine their life in search for that critical piece of memory, which they wish to cherish. The counsellors are there for guideance but it is ultimately up to the individual to shape their eternity. I found this simplistic approach on humanism to be remarkably effective - I'm willing to bet that the majority of viewers will at least think about their happiest memory. I know I did.

Those familiar with Koreeda's style will be aware of his documentary roots - which perhaps explains the low budget, made-for-TV, non-fictional approach. Think hand-held shots, focusing on interviews with a "fly on the wall" style observation. This occurs until the guests leave and then the dramatic elements kick in during the final third. The shots here become far more constructed and staged. The whole look of the film wholeheartedly compliments the subject by giving it a down to earth realism, which I believe would have been lost if the filmmakers started to get ambitious.

After Life is a film that requires patience. The interviews in particular are purposefully slow but it is vital that the viewer pays attention. It would have been nice to perhaps delve deeper into one or two cases but certainly the most major ones were covered nicely. Hirokazu Koreeda delivers a sweet, unpatronising message on life, love and moving on - one that I would urge others to listen.
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on 20 December 2009
I saw this film several times on channel World Cinema- sadly now gone.
I think this film will stay with me forever.
It is haunting but somewhat strangely reassuring in one's darker moments.
Luckily it was subtitled, so hearing those voices telling their life stories was also very moving.
Apparently many were true stories told by those who lived them; some survivors of the Atom bombs dropped in Japan.
This film is truly BRILLIANT.
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on 7 February 2012
After Life evolves around the premise of a facility where people who have died go through before they leave the planet to live forever in a memory of their choice. The premise alone leaves a lot of depth into such an intriguing concept, in which the character themselves are surprised to go through such a film-making faculty before leaving this planet after their death.
The characters have some gravitas to keep you entertained for about 2 hours, particularly when the story arcs for two character collide in an unexpected fashion. The cinematography paints the office environment with some dreary colours, which gives a down to earth, if industrial, approach to the mise-en-scene, in which a group of workers carry out their tasks to accommodate the recently deceased's needs, in order to film their memories before heading off into the next stage of their after-life.
The film may appear very pedestrian to those who may not watch that much Japanese cinema, but this conceptual fantasy drama is worth a look for those that are wanting a film that has a spiritual momentum of Japan's major religious beliefs in a simplistic manner.
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on 15 February 2008
This is a masterpiece of quiet simplicity. Eschewing the swirly white lights and special effects of other films about the after life, it builds slowly to a beautiful conclusion. Profound and thoughtful without ever being sententious or heavy, it celebrates the beauty of the ordinary. A film that stays with you long after other, flashier films are forgotten
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on 6 September 2015
Gentle look at servicing the needs of the newly departed. It turns out that leaving this world and moving to the next is rather like changing any country of residence...there are formalities to go through and people to see, all of whom have workloads and targets and who work in typically crumbling official buildings and offices.
All so far so good. What motivates these officials and do they ever relate to their clients?
The fact that after death physical time has no meaning comes to haunt (sorry) one counselor as he finds a common link to the newly dead client before him, making him reassess his position.
In Japanese with subtitles, and a film that gently prods the viewer. All praise the OHBB where I got referred to this movie. I enjoyed it immensely.
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on 6 May 2012
A film has never touched me like this one before. Much like a haiku it is very gentle.

As the title suggests, this film is set in a afterlife. Once someone dies they need to choose one memory to live with for eternity. There's a wide variety of characters ranging from a little girl, a depressed old man and a prostitute! Even though there's an awful lot of characters it manages to make you care a bit for each of them.

It takes a lot, a hell of a lot, to make a movie touching and when they do tend to be touching it's like a rock falling into water. With this, it's more like a leaf landing on the water. Apologies for the cheesy metaphor but I do mean it.

Defiently worth watching. This is one that has a lot of depth, isn't hard to understand and leaves you thinking.
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on 27 January 2008
This is a profound meditation on death, memory, love and cinema. Beautifully shot, evocatoive and atmospheric; the actors live the part rather than act and the dialogue is sheer poetry.
A flawless gem of a film. A spititual experience that demands deep contemplation about the meaning of our lives and what we leave behind when we leave
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on 19 June 2016
Enjoyed this at a film group I belong to and bought as a present for a friend, who also enjoyed it. A clever Japanese look at individual special moments that can be relived after the person has passed on.
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on 8 July 2015
My favourite film.
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