After Life (Japan, 1998)
The release of 1995's Maborosi introduced the world to a major new force in Japanese film making. Hirokazo Kore-eda stunned audiences with his vividly realized, emotionally resonant depiction of a young widow's struggle to piece together her life in the wake of her husband's inexplicable suicide. Maborosi was not widely distributed, but it is available on video, and its nearly perfect composition caused film critic Roger Ebert to award it a slot in his first Overlooked Film Festival.
Kore-eda's follow-up to Maborosi is After Life, a much different kettle of fish. The premise is one that has intrigued human beings since the dawn of history: what happens after death. Kore-eda's solution, however, has the distinction of being unique - a quality that is rare in motion pictures of any sort, and is especially unusual in a movie set in this arena. According to the director's vision, when someone dies, they go to a spiritual halfway house that looks like a country lodge. There is no heaven or hell, no god or religion. The dead stay at this place for exactly one week. During that time, they must choose the one memory from their life that they want to keep; the rest will all be erased. That memory is then re-created and filmed, and it becomes their constant and sole companion as they pass into the afterlife.
At the heart of After Life lies the kind of enticing and intellectually titillating concept that will have audiences examining their own lives. A movie like this demands a degree of post-credit involvement - otherwise, it has not achieved one of its primary aims. Kore-eda uses this premise as a springboard for numerous interwoven tales, telling us stories both of those who are passing through the way station on their way to the sweet hereafter and those who "live" and work there. There's one simple requirement for becoming a counselor at the halfway house: refuse to choose a memory. No one can pass on until they do.
After Life lacks the sumptuous visual palette of Maborosi. There aren't as many great visuals, although Kore-eda still presents a variety of images that stick in the mind. One turns a winter storm into a ballet of snowflakes and another shows the steam drifting lazily upward from two cups of freshly-poured tea. As was true of Maborosi, every scene is carefully composed, with the camera often lingering on inanimate objects. There are long shots of empty halls, unoccupied rooms, and open spaces where nothing moves. This technique, while not overt, gives After Life a much different feel from the run-of-the-mill art house offering.
An element that is missing from After Life is the emotional connection that formed the cornerstone of Maborosi. After Life is intellectually satisfying, but emotionally cool. There are too many characters, and little time is accorded to any of them. The only three given more than token screen time are Ichiro Watanabe (Taketoshi Naito), a 70-year old businessman who died in the wake of an unhappy life of drudgery, and his afterlife case workers, Takashi Mochizuki (Arata) and Shiori Satonaka (Erika Oda). As Watanabe views videotapes of his life in order to select a memory, Takashi and Shiori are drawn into his drama, breaking the cardinal rule of not becoming involved. When it becomes apparent to Takashi that he and the old man share a past, he removes himself from the case. His subsequent decision causes a crisis of confidence for Shiori.
It's interesting to consider some of the memories most cherished by the characters. One man, who speaks ceaselessly about his sexual conquests, eventually chooses his daughter's wedding day. A teenage girl rhapsodizes about a trip to Disneyland, then, after learning that it's a common choice for children her age, decides on something more personal. A man recalls a time when he was an infant and felt the autumn sunlight warming his face. Another chooses a bus ride on the first day of summer. Some remember love, some remember comfort, and others remember physical pleasure. There are as many memories as there are people - memories for everyone except the few who intentionally shun them.
Kore-eda's film also expends time exploring the world where the counselors reside, and the kind of existences they lead. The way station is virtually identical to a segment of modern-day Japan, complete with a city where people hustle to their destinations, traffic jams during rush hour, and stores that decorate for the Christmas season. In many ways, it's the ordinariness of Kore-eda's limbo and of those who inhabit it that make this vision of the afterlife so fascinating.
If Maborosi introduced Kore-eda to the international film-going world, After Life establishes him as a talent whose every feature will be greeted with anticipation. On the international stage, few recent young directors have shown this much promise without being noticeably associated with one particular genre or style (i.e., Quentin Tarantino). Even had it possessed a less intelligent script, After Life would have been intriguing on the basis of its central conceit alone. However, with Kore-eda's skillful hand behind both the camera and the pen, the result is a rewarding cinematic experience.
After Life (Japan, 1998)
Cast: Arata, Erika Oda, Taketoshi Naito, Susumu Terajima, Takashi Naito
Screenplay: Hirokazo Kore-eda
Cinematography: Yutaka Yamazaki and Masayoshi Sukita
U.S. Distributor: Artistic License Films