After Life ★★★★★

After Life

"If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present." Lao Tzu

Before he began creating feature fictional films, Hirokazu Kore-eda worked in non-fiction, creating several documentary films for Japanese television. When he began making feature films, he brought the skills he learned through documentaries, to his second feature AfterLife in 1998. Kore-eda said that he aims to focus on the “line between fiction and documentary,” and to “capture that moment in between these two.” [1] There is often a line drawn between fiction as a solely imaginative endeavor and documentary as a capturing of objective reality. Despite these perceived differences, Kore-eda recognizes that artifice can lead to greater insights into spiritual truths and human existence.

Kore-eda’s film reflects on the meaning of life on an individual level, exploring the problem of worldly attachment and the illusory nature of subjective experience. Kore-eda recalls the style of Michael Haneke in his unwillingness to conform to magical tropes, avoidance of sentimentality, and lack of music: this frees the audience from distraction and allows them time to reflect on their own treasured memories. Asking someone to select a single memory to encapsulate the best part of life shows what they value. It is memory through which a person is formed, through which they develop and hold onto an ideology or belief. Through narrowing the anxiety of choice to a single, individual memory the film places a value on the moment: the present. The resulting sifting through the past is a process of reconciling and making peace with it, becoming able to release and let go of attachments. Kore-eda's film imaginatively draws on traditional Buddhist cosmology, exploring their notions of karma, death and rebirth.

In AfterLife, twenty-two recently deceased people enter a purgatory (devoid of religious affiliation or denomination) and each has a staff advisor assigned to them. The staff tell the arrivals: "you'll be staying with us for one week. Everyone gets a private room. Just relax and enjoy yourself. But while you're here, there is one thing you must do. From the entire years of your life, we need you to select one memory. One memory that was most meaningful or precious to you. There is a time limit. You have three days to decide. When you've chosen your memory, our staff will do their best to recreate if on film. On Saturday, we'll screen the film for you. As soon as you've re-lived your memory, you will move on, taking only that memory with you."

The process of remembering and re-creation is shown through a seven day cycle, concluding with (final) rest. Monday and Tuesday are dedicated to the overwhelming act of remembering a life. By Wednesday, the clients must make a decision. For most, the act of remembering may be cleansing, yet for some it is also filled with regret and remorse.
The memories range from the comic (a teenage girl recalling the joys of Tokyo Disneyland’s Splash Mountain) to the tragic (the loss of a love).

One particular young arrival is astonished by this version of the afterlife. He questions that “you’re saying that everyone comes here in the end? No matter what you’ve done? Or where you’re going after?” Kore-eda levels the hierarchy between heaven and hell in true Buddhist fashion. All the new inhabitants start in the same place, and each arrival is given the same option. Could the selected memory serve possible utilitarian purposes for both heaven and hell? A memory’s purpose in heaven would be to cherish and cradle, as a memento of a life well-lived. On the other hand, perhaps the hell-bound are in greater need their favorite memory, so in the depths of despair, the happiest memory would ease the suffering. Certainly spending eternity within a bad memory would be an approximation of hell, and spending forever within the best memory would be an approximation of heaven. (However, Kore-eda does not infer any of this).

One of the arrivals, Watanabe, a 70 year-old salary man, says he “has no memories”. His life (similar to the bureaucracy of whom he is now a client) has passed him by. Watanabe has trouble choosing a memory, not because he refuses but because he cannot think of anything significant enough to preserve. So as he is unable to conjure inspiration, the Institute comically reveals they have videotapes of everybody’s life on file. Watanabe is given access to a library of VHS tapes detailing what he calls “the evidence of [his] life.” After days of re-experiencing his entire life on film, Watanabe is finally able to choose, showing the power of cinema to awaken the humanity in an individual.

Through this recollection, Watanabe saw himself through the eyes of others and this pained him with remorse. He is particularly regretful of the way he treated his wife, with whom his marriage had been arranged. As an atonement for his neglect of her and a belated appreciation of her devotion, he chooses his memory from shortly before she died, when he did something she had always wanted to do and gone with her (ironically) to the movies. As he sat with her on a bench afterwards, he promised more such occasions and she was happy (though she died soon after and they never happened). He had told her, “we have plenty of time”.
Watanabe’s counselor, Mochizuki realizes that Watanabe’s wife was his own fiancée, before he was killed at age 23 in the war. Ever since then, he has been serving in the AfterLife bureaucracy because he cannot decide on his own memory. This sparks an inspiration for him. He seeks out the woman’s own memory, which is also kept on file in the Institute. He finds the memory of their engagement, which had coincidentally taken place on the same park bench as Watanabe’s memory. “I searched desperately for a happy memory,” he says, “until I realized I was part of someone else’s happiness. What a wonderful discovery!” Finally, he chooses a memory and proceeds to eternity (even though it means leaving behind a young fellow-counselor who has a crush on him). In the final scene Mochizuki filming his long-delayed memory on the same park bench chosen by Watanabe and his wife, where he sits alone. Mochizuki realizes that, while the peace of happiness lies within oneself, it may also be drawn through the happiness of others, especially when one has contributed to their happiness.

While most accept the challenge to choose a memory, the 21-year-old Iseya astounds the staff by refusing to choose a memory, arguing that he should be able to choose a dream instead: "ultimately, we end up turning memories into our own images. Of course it really happened, so it feels very real." He says creating his own futuristic dream like a film, with imagined situations, "would be a lot more meaningful than looking back at my past. So this look back at the past, living with a single moment from my past would be too painful for me."
He is denied the option of a dream, because it is a fictional image and not a personal memory. He then asserts that their system is the problem, rather than him. This reveals the staff’s objective aims: striving for accuracy, obtaining actual memories rather than inventing fiction.

It is often said that a person is the sum of their memories. The difference in AfterLife is that a person becomes the zenith of their memories.
Memory loss is a great fear for Kore-eda. In a statement on the DVD, Kore-eda explained: “my grandfather became senile when I was six. The word Alzheimer’s did not yet exist and no one in my family or community understood what had happened to him [...] One day, he no longer recognized our faces. Finally he could not recognize his own. As a child, I comprehended little of what I saw, but I remember thinking that people forgot everything when they died. I now understood how critical memories are to our identity, to a sense of self.”

Despite his fear, Kore-eda depicts the natural loss of memory in a stoic fashion. This is different than, for instance, Michael Haneke’s film, Amour, where an elderly marriage struggles as the wife gradually slides into dementia. Whereas Kore-eda focused on the sadness that comes with loss, Haneke turned the premise toward horror. While Haneke is a realist, his intent was to show the end without romanticism and depict the horrors of a husband watching his wife slip into a mental oblivion, losing her digestive capabilities and forgetting how to breathe. Kore-eda sees real horror, not in the loss and deterioration of the physical but the mental.

One of the new arrivals is an elderly woman, shuffling aimlessly around the building. She’s unresponsive to questions and stares out the window. She picks up random objects and places them into a plastic bag. Later during an interview, she empties the contents she’s collected (leaves and acorns) and organizes them into rows on the table. Her only words are to question if “flowers bloom in the yard”. When the workers meet to discuss their cases, they reveal that this client had Alzheimer’s for most of her life and has not been able to form new memories since the age of six. It’s interesting that Kore-eda chose for this woman to keep her ailment in the after life, preventing the body (and more importantly, the soul) from being freed of its Earthly restrictions.

Another client, Kenji, is pleased to learn that once he chooses a memory and passes on, all else is forgotten. He is haunted by the pain of a life filled with wrong choices, though by selecting a childhood memory of innocence, he can be relieved of the burden of memory. Kenji exclaims “wow, this really is heaven”.

Another client, Ichiro, also has difficulty selecting a memory. He reflects that his “life was unremarkable in all ways”, and wants is a memory that proves his existence. Like losing the ability to remember, this is also a primal fear that every person must come to terms with. We all want a legacy that affirms our existence after we’re gone.
“Our memories are not fixed or static,” Kore-eda said, “they are dynamic; reflecting selves that are constantly changing . . . The act of remembering is by no means redundant. Rather it challenges us to evolve and mature.”
Kore-eda sees the power in the infinite possibilities of memory. A single memory can encapsulate an entire life.

Afterlife is not simply a film about life and death, but also a film about cinema itself. By using the medium of film as a device that not only captures one’s entire life but also transports characters from one spiritual state to another, Kore-eda is commenting on the power cinema has on its viewer.
Kore-eda draws attention to the line between fictional images and real life experiences, proposing that they might not be different at all, and how cinema merges the two concepts together. Kore-eda parallels the work of the afterlife crew and the work of a filmmaker, creating natural comedy through the cheap production values of the videos, which is all that “The Man Upstairs” allows, worked out within budget and against a final deadline. Nevertheless, the staff exemplifies the Japanese work ethic as they diligently strive to recreate the day, season, weather, atmosphere, environment. The final act of the film centers around the workers becoming a full fledged film crew; building sets, writing scripts and acting out the memories for their clients. Only after the client sees the memory up on a big screen can he or she move on to the true afterlife.

Film, like history, is fluid and continuous. A moment in time is only a blip on the radar that continues to move. In AfterLife, film is capturing time, freezing time, making it possible to bring time back into being, every moment.
In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes called death the “inevitable conclusion to an image”. The photograph serves as proof of existence, but death is the final inevitability. From the second that the flash bulb pops and the photograph is retained, the moment is gone; it is a memory, and with every second afterward the memory becomes something different. In the end, the memory is anything but the actual moment in time.

Andre Bazin also wrote about this process, focusing on how people throughout history have attempted to ‘preserve life’, specifically, the mummification and statuettes used in ancient Egypt. He then said how this role was taken over by painting, and people became content with having their likeness preserved in a visual depiction, rather than embalmment. Today’s cinema has been described as the furthermost evolution of plastic realism. Photography and cinema are discoveries that satisfy “the preservation of life by the representation of life”.

Since the film’s creation 1998, technology has progressed beyond the video archives as digital streaming dominates media platforms; even further distinguished, AfterLife’s characters share experiences through oral storytelling, in contrast to our modern social media.
AfterLife dramatizes how our ideals connect with how we experience the compression, isolation and ephemerality of film. Whether visiting a restaurant or attending a concert, people now choose the extent to which their smartphones participate. Moving images can not only preserve but also comprise our memories.
Shiori is the unhappiest of the counselors and through her character Kore-eda depicts contemporary society where many young people lead empty materialistic lives, cannot properly communicate and feel rejected.

Like memory itself, the replicated films cannot be perfect. One man chose the memory of flying a small Cessna plane through the clouds. The workers set out to rebuild the plane out of cardboard and suspend it from the ceiling with wires. When asked to describe the clouds, the man claimed that they were pure white and fluffy “like cotton candy”; this is the imperfect memory by a man who, unable to recreate it in detail, chose the most romanticized version. Still the workers built the plane and suspend large chunks of cotton around it. And this is enough for the man. He watches with a huge smile on his face. The memory only needs to move and create a snapshot of a moment, allowing the experience of the moment to linger. That experience is cinema.

Finally, when all the workers and clients sit together in the theater to watch the films. One after another, the memories are projected on the screen. When the last memory is screened, the lights come up and the clients have disappeared from their seats.

Kore-eda does not propose answers, but calls for reflection. This process of remembering becomes a courageous act, which calls to humility through realizing the limited scope of one’s life. It is through the accumulated, lived experiences and the growth of age that we are able to create and give value/meaning to looking back at memory.
The film’s reflections point to our own meaning-filled post-theatrical experience. We leave the cinema, close our browser, or shut off our home television with gratitude for the fact that we don’t have to choose one memory.

Memory is a gift. Memory can imprison us, but memory can also set us free. “To remember, really remember, is to slip our moorings and set sail on the open sea, with all that entails of peril and exhilaration.” [2]




End Notes

1 Kore-eda, Hirokazu, and Kan Sanjun. Switch intabyu- tatsujin tatsu: Kore-eda Hirokazu × Kan Sanjun. Tokyo: NHK, 2014.

2 The Shattering of Loneliness: On Christian Remembrance Erik Varden, published by Bloomsbury Continuum 2018. p11

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