Top positive review
7 people found this helpful
What does your life add up to?
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.