What comprises our favorite memories, and how do we understand our lives in relation? What do we do with these memories, and how do they shape us? Reviewers of After Life at the time of its 1998 release engage these questions within a buoyant cinephilia, enthusiastically championing the film’s own unabashed film-loving spirit. After Life brings together non-actors (who narrate their actual memories) and actors (working from a Koreeda-authored script) within a fictional premise: immediately upon death, characters enter a waystation in which they have several days to select one “most meaningful and precious” memory; staff members work to recreate the newly-deceased’s memories as film, and – upon screening this filmed memory at the end of their week-long stay – the newly-deceased pass into eternity, carrying with them only their selected memory.
Koreeda’s 1996 documentary, Without Memory, chronicles the impact of a man’s short-term memory loss; who we are, the film suggests, is who we remember ourselves to be. After Life expands this documentary circumstance into a fantastical world in which film occupies a vital role in remembering one’s life. After Life not only models a cinematic way of being but also invokes a history, as the film bears a look indebted to Japanese cinema and aesthetics. Framing its plot with empty spaces (i.e. hallways, trees, courtyards, skies), After Life pays homage to Yasujiro Ozu’s renowned “pillow shots,” a place of rest that yields both retrospection upon and anticipation of the unfolding plot.1 Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, informs the play of open space within frame composition; cinematography, in tandem with acting, entrenches the film with a profound sense of mono no aware, a Japanese concept that means a sensitivity to the passing of time. Only the second narrative feature of his 27-year career, After Life becomes a touchstone for Koreeda’s subsequent films; Our Little Sister (2016), for example, visually features a resplendent orchard of cherry blossoms and includes a character who states overtly, “I wonder what I’ll remember in the end.” Koreeda’s oeuvre explores familial relations within a lighthearted style (courtesy of playful dialogue, easy movement among characters, a hopeful atmosphere, and outstanding child performances) that gently accrues weight and staggering profundity.
Though Koreeda’s later films enjoy broader festival accolades (Like Father, Like Son won the 2013 Cannes Jury Prize), After Life becomes a defining film at the turn of the century. To experience After Life in 2017 is to register the ways that our processes of remembering have changed in just the past 19 years. Time’s passage renders only more distant After Life’s video and celluloid archives, increasingly outmoded as digital streaming dominates media platforms; further, After Life’s characters share experiences through oral storytelling, not social media (though a key plot point exemplifies a prototypical social media “sharing”). After Life dramatizes how our ideals – of intensity and intimacy, of quiet moments and spectacular joys – connect with how we experience the compression, isolation, ephemerality, repeatability, and alterity of film. Whether visiting a restaurant or attending a concert, whether taking a walk or beholding a blossoming tree, we now choose the extent to which our smart phones will participate. Moving images can not only preserve but also comprise our memories, in the form of home video, beloved movies, striking scenes, and memorable performances. We age with our movies, growing up together: sometimes unevenly, and sometimes with a reassuring lifelong companionship. A paean to how film can teach us to exercise benevolent perception, a tender invitation to reflect on our “most meaningful or precious” memories while celebrating the resplendent resonance of minute detail, After Life imagines a film-centric life, as this film itself changes with passing time.
Be forewarned: this film can bring about skepticism or even impatience. Why does or how can anyone choose a single memory? Doesn’t the waystation’s initially exhilarating promise (experience forever, perpetually as your best time!) grow bleak, as being trapped within a perpetual “best moment” threatens to mitigate its exceptional status? Doesn’t anyone bristle at the gap between remembered and shabbily-recreated detail, or resent the externalization of one’s subjective memory into a film starring someone else? The care with which I struggle only further affirms the appeal of its premise. After Life’s realistic aesthetic renders a whimsical plot with both gentle poignancy (i.e. long takes facilitate rewarding attention) and humorous incongruity (i.e. the waystation “band” blares its out-of-tune anthem as the dead proceed to the screening room; a seemingly-celebratory plot moment feels like another kind of dying) that either undermines the magic or creates a new sort altogether. The film offers both 1) a burned-out bureaucratic agency, replete with workers – clad in bland logo-marked uniforms – suffering fatigue and struggling earnestly in meetings with staff and clients; and 2) a dazzling apotheosis of cinema’s revelatory capacity, collapsing a year’s worth of stunning seasonal change into one week and featuring endearing protagonists reminiscing upon their grandest joy.
Over a decade ago, as my own best friend prepared to move away, I found comfort in After Life, as Shiori (Erika Oda) readies for her Mochizuki (Arata) to leave. More recently, I’ve held my infant son in afternoon light, accompanied by memories of this film’s sun-streaked memories of youth. Thanks to After Life, I newly see blossoms, leaves, libraries, benches, clouds. Further, I newly see film as both a resource and an art: that to which we turn for information, and that which we create and enjoy. In short, this film’s porous quality offers myriad points of entry. Perhaps we’ve never experienced war first-hand, but we have collected leaves; perhaps we’ve not reunited with a lost love while crossing a bridge, but we recognise the warm pleasure of sharing Earl Grey tea; perhaps we’ve not given birth, but we have all been children; perhaps we’ve not mentored the dead as they make their way to eternity, but we have listened to years’ worth of anecdotes from loved ones, sharing their stories as if to become part of our own. After Life’s fanciful premise and banal setting, its wide array of memories, its bureaucratic endeavor of processing the “class” of newly-dead, its cinephilic project of transforming memory into film, its simultaneous embracing and skepticism of this film-fueled moment-expanding afterlife: these factors grant us access to our own meaning-filled post-theatrical experience. We leave the cinema, close our browser, or shut down our home theater with gratitude for the fact that we don’t have to choose, at least for now. We look up from our screens, come down from our cinematic high, newly-attuned and calibrated for a world toward which we look with open, loving eyes.2
With thanks to Amelie Hastie, who first took a chance on my writing about Koreeda; After Life indeed enables magical and meaningful futures, to which our friendship continually attests. With thanks to Angelika Bammer, who opened new worlds by introducing me to this film. And with thanks to my teachers, friends, family, and students with whom this film keeps meaning more.
Wandafuru raifu/After Life (1998 Japan)
Prod Co: Engine Film, Sputnik Productions, TV Man Union Prod: Masayuki Akieda, Shiho Sato, Yutaka Shigenobu Dir: Hirokazu Koreeda Scr: Hirokazu Koreeda Phot: Masayoshi Sukita, Yutaka Yamazaki Ed: Hirokazu Koreeda Prod Des: Hideo Gunji, Toshihiro Isomi
Mus: Yasuhiro Kasamatsu
Cast: Arata, Erika Oda, Susumu Terajima, Takashi Naitô, Kyôko Kagawa, Kei Tani, Taketoshi Naitô, Tôru Yuri, Yûsuke Iseya, Sayaka Yoshino
- See Noël Burch, Life to Those Shadows, trans. and ed. Ben Brewster (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), p. 255 ↩
- This piece updates and compresses my article “Learning to Love What Passes: Sensual Perception, Temporal Transformation, and Epistemic Production in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life,” Camera Obscura, 23.2(2008): p. 69-101. ↩