AFTER LIFE (1998)
Updated: Jun 18
The starting point for the most significant Japanese director of our time.
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Cast: Arata Iura, Erika Oda, Susumu Terajima, Takashi Naitô, Takuro Sugie, Ichiro Watanabe
Welcome to the After Life
After Life was the film that skyrocketed Kore-eda to stardom and made him the household name that he is today. It was especially well received in America. «Haunting», «Brilliant» and «Masterpiece» was only a handful of the superlatives posted by respected papers like The New York Times, The New York Post and Newsday.
After Life is a unique film indeed. Not only did it showcase Kore-eda's flair for dialogue and drama to the world, it presented a film that went beyond the scope of entertainment. It is a philosophical thought experiment which we all can relate to. Death is inevitable. When it catches up with us, do we want to recall the fleeting moments of happiness, or was it all an illusion?
A story about recreating stories
The story is simple, and the cinematography is equally minimalistic. Most of the film takes place in office spaces, on humble sets, with understated characters in anonymous costumes. It is all about the dialogue and the room it leaves for interpretation.
As it turns out, when humans die they get to spend one week in a facility where they have to choose one memory to keep in the afterlife. After days of deliberation a memory is selected and recreated with an in-house film crew.
The point is not to recreate the stories per se, but to capture the feeling the memories represent. This allows the facility to keep costs at a minimum, inasmuch as such concerns matter in purgatory, and demands a certain creativity from the crew.
This particular week the facility has 22 new visitors to process, during which one crew member of the memory recreation facility notice something out of the ordinary. It turns out that he used to be engaged to the woman that his current client was married to in life.
Philosophy in the After Life
The film is based on the reflections and dialogues of the 22 clients. During their reflections, one can’t help but notice the mundane state of their happiest moments. Is it really so that people were at their happiest when sitting on a bench in autumn, or felt a breeze on their face in summer, or visited Disneyland?
When it comes to a film like this, it is meaningless to question the logic behind it all. It does seem strange, though, that not one of the 22 are in denial, or at least mourns the passing of him or herself.
That being said, it is very interesting to imagine purgatory as a sort of psychiatric exercise in which deceased people get time to digest the passing of their own life. Perhaps the small things in life are the most important?
The client who married the case workers former fiancée would perhaps never have found such happiness, had the case worker not passed away. And yes, the case worker is also deceased. How he came to be employed, somewhere between life and death, is a question for another time, or perhaps a prequel.
Therein lie some of the food for thought. Not only are mundane moments important. Blissful times are often random and come when you least expect it. The case worker certainly didn't expect to find some meaningful point in his former life this day.
Essence between the lines
Getting back to the small things in life, such things arguably occur between the major lines in our lives. The small breaks from career, parenting and personal demons are when we find peace. In between the lines we find time for reflection, growth and recharge.
There is a lot to be read between the lines in After Life. For instance, the use of cherry blossoms was an obvious necessity, being that they are the very symbol of fleeting life and existential reflection in Japanese culture.
There are countless other details and cultural significances to consider, which is a good thing. What happens between the lines is the essence of After Life. Therefore, it will appear different to each viewer, depending on their personal baggage and take on the narrative.
As such, the film is not only a reflection of society, but of ourselves. Depending on your background, you might find meaning in the happiness of sitting on a bench in autumn. You might even find happiness in watching slow churned storytelling in After Life.
Producing an existential trip for afterthought
Watching this film can indeed feel like a meditative exercise. The narrative is brought forth by the dialogues alone. It maintains momentum fairly well, but sometimes the interactions are too tedious to uphold proper focus.
After Life could easily have been cut 10-15 minutes and still kept its profound essence. This is in no way meant as a critique of Kore-eda, or the actors, but rather to underline that After Life is more interesting than it is entertaining.
As mentioned above, The film is more of a philosophical experiment than pure entertainment. It is more about the underlying message than what you see, which is slow paced cinematography, which is borderline mind-numbing at times. It is no wonder that it was well received by critics, since it appears a perfect example of art house cinema.
Final verdict of After Life
After Life did of course deserve all its accolades, but it's not a particularly easy film to approach. Still, for fans of Japanese cinema, it is mandatory. If not for its content alone, then at least for its place in Japanese film history.
Whether it is deemed a classic or an excruciating exercise in pretentiousness is besides the point. After Life quickly gained the status of a modern classic, which rarely happens so close after a film’s release date. Check it out with some precaution. It can be a surprisingly profound experience for the open-minded.
David Desser: After Life: History, Memory, Trauma and the Transcendent
Senses of Cinema: How Film Remembers: After Life (Hirokazu Koreeda, 1998)