Hirokazu Kore-Eda Remembers "Afterlife"

by Maya Churi


If you could only take one memory with you for the rest of eternity, which would you choose? Posed with this question, Hirokazu Kore-Eda ("Maborosi") documents the answers in his new film, "Afterlife." Part scripted, part documentary, the film brings up questions of reality and memory, forcing the audience to contemplate the question themselves.

A meditative cross between "Defending Your Life" and "A Christmas Carol," the film follows a group of characters, all recently deceased, who are taken on a journey through their past by a group of social workers. Limbo is almost like an old school or government building; nameless, except for a vague circular insignia. Once a memory is chosen, the workers re-create the event in a soundstage, complete with props, lights and costumes. The social workers turn into filmmakers, recreating the memory into a short film complete with cast, crew and set. Afterwards, the dead file into a screening room, watch the films, and quietly disappear, slipping silently into their perfect dream. This description however gives only a hint of insight into the complexities and depth of "Afterlife," a hilarious and moving account of moving on.

indieWIRE sat down with Kore-Eda and his translator Linda Hoaglund during the 1999 Sundance Film Festival to talk about the festival, Japanese television and the release of "Afterlife." The film opens today at New York City's Film Forum.

indieWIRE: What do you think of your first Sundance?

Hirokazu Kore-Eda: I approached Sundance with a certain amount of trepidation. Many Asian filmmakers who have come here have not had the best experience, because most of the focus is on American independent cinema. But the first screening was sold out. My one goal was accomplished at the filmmakers brunch because I got to meet Robert Redford. The other goal, of course is promoting my own film here, but in addition I also wanted to meet some of the directors in the independent film community. One nice thing that happened was that Toyomichi Kurita, the DP who shot Robert Altman's latest movie, loved it.

iW: This is my second time seeing "Afterlife" and this time I took a friend and he thought it was hysterical...

Kore-Eda: I am so happy when people laugh at it. Frankly, I was dreading coming here because I understated the bad reputation that Sundance has in Asia. You say, "I'm going to Sundance" and everyone goes, "oh yeah, right."

iW: I'm interested to know if there is a kind of Hollywood/Independent film type of hierarchy in Japan?

Kore-Eda: Up until the early '90s there was a hierarchy like that where the three big studios made their movies and owned all the theaters. They had a complete monopoly but now it's really failing, partly because the three studios have never cultivated good in-house directors. All the good films were being made by the independents. The Japanese equivalent of a summer blockbuster is a New Years Day movie, and two of the big studios were fighting over one independent film. One ended up getting it and it's being distributed nationwide in 200 theaters. But it's made by a completely independent company that was savvy and knew that the studios were falling apart. Now the power of filmmaking is shifting.

iW: Do American independents get distributed in Japan?

Kore-Eda: Tokyo is wonderful for distribution of international films, a lot of Iranian films, Taiwanese films. But most of the art films are from Europe and Asia. One or two of John Sayles' films have been distributed. It's still very difficult, it's moving slowly. One distributor is doing a whole Cassavettes retrospective but that's not current independent. One woman who runs the Sundance equivalent of a film festival in Japan focused on young, eight millimeter, short films. Her take on why American independents don't make it in Japan is because she thinks a lot of Japanese audiences like to go see beautiful movies and tend to rely a lot on visual information that comes from the screen. Her belief is that a lot of American independents are really about language and the script and since there's a language barrier and there's not enough information coming from the screen it's a harder sell in Japan.

iW: Who is distributing "Afterlife" in Japan?

Kore-Eda: We are doing it ourselves. We started designing the posters when we were making the film and starting contacting the theaters themselves and it's actually slated to open in Tokyo, in a theater like the Angelika of New York. At the moment "The Big Lebowski" has parked itself there, so the release got pushed back. But it's the ideal place with a loyal audience.

iW: "The Big Lebowski" is popular in Japan?

Kore-Eda: "Reservoir Dogs, " "Trainspotting," "Underground" and "The Big Lebowski" -- all those movies.

iW: Speaking of Japanese audiences, I saw this article about a very popular television show in Japan about a guy who locked himself in his apartment until he received some kind of final big prize. The longer he stays the more prizes he wins, though sometimes he wins only enough food for the next few days. Have you seen this show?

Kore-Eda: I just wrote a piece in a Japanese magazine comparing this show to "The Truman Show." It's a manifestation of how sick Japanese television is, but it's super smart. It's part of an on-going series called "Electronic Boy." The show has different segments with the Michael Moore, "Roger and Me" approach. It's "Roger and Me" without a brain.

iW: A lot of the clips that we see of Japanese television always seems so humiliating. I saw one about a man who would go to a public space and scream in someone's ear and then the camera would zoom in really quickly to get their reaction.

Kore-Eda: In the eighties there was a huge shift in the humor of Japanese television. Up until the then the humor was garnered by people who said humorous things, but in the '80s it was garnered by people who were being laughed at, while the audience watches and watches. I watch "Electronic Boy" faithfully every week not because I like the show but because I'm interested in where the smartest T.V. producers and directors are going, what direction they are headed in.

iW: So does he actually leave the apartment?

Kore-Eda: They keep changing it because they can't risk the possibility of exposure. While shooting they actually have to film in a different apartments each week because there is a mass of people trying to track him down.

iW: How long are the shows?

Kore-Eda: 7 or 8 minutes. Because of the popularity of that segment they published a book of his diaries which says what day a T.V. was delivered or what day canned goods were delivered. It sold 300,000 copies!

iW: It seems a lot like something you would find on the Internet or public access.

Kore-Eda: There is another very popular show that is horrifying in terms of it's violation of privacy. There are two guys who are MEV-like disk jockeys and what happens is: real people who think their girlfriend is cheating on them call up these guys and they go with a camera into her apartment, open the door while she's there and start going through her stuff and finding proof. When they've got proof then they pretend that they're calling up the other guy that she's sleeping with until she confesses. Privacy is not really a concept in Japan. There is no concept that privacy is a protected right so people can get away with it.

iW: What's next, is there another project coming up?

Kore-Eda: Yes, there are several proposals but first we need to work on making "Afterlife" a success in Japan, recoup the money and then move on to other projects. Because there is a recession in Japan, it's hard to find investors so you want to make sure you recoup your money first.


Cast overview, first billed only:
Arata Arata ...
Takashi Mochizuki, counsellor
Erika Oda Erika Oda ...
Shiori Satonaka, trainee counsellor
Susumu Terajima Susumu Terajima ...
Satoru Kawashima, counsellor
Takashi Naitô Takashi Naitô ...
Takuro Sugie, counsellor
Kyôko Kagawa Kyôko Kagawa ...
Kyoko Watanabe, Ichiro's Wife
Kei Tani Kei Tani ...
Kennosuke Nakamura, boss
Taketoshi Naitô Taketoshi Naitô ...
Ichiro Watanabe, who cannot choose his favourite experience
Tôru Yuri Tôru Yuri ...
Gisuke Shoda, who talks about sex
Yûsuke Iseya Yûsuke Iseya ...
Yusuke Iseya, who refuses to choose his experience
Sayaka Yoshino Sayaka Yoshino ...
Kana Yoshino, talks about Disneyland
Kazuko Shirakawa Kazuko Shirakawa ...
Nobuko Amano, who talks about her affair with a married man
Kotaro Shiga Kotaro Shiga ...
Kenji Yamamoto, who wants to forget his past
Hisako Hara Hisako Hara ...
Kiyo Nishimura, old lady who loves cherry blossoms
Sadao Abe Sadao Abe ...
Ichiro (as young man)
Natsuo Ishidô Natsuo Ishidô ...
Kyoko Watanabe as a young woman


Interview II


Hirokazu Koreeda on "Wandafuru raifu (After Life)"
by Liza Bear
New York, September 7, 1999

Failure to safeguard your best memories will not condemn you to hellfire and brimstone in "After Life," Kore-Eda Hirokazu's delicate and magical allegory about the final passage. Far from it. But it will commit you to being a bureaucrat, albeit a heavenly one, for eternity.

The crux of the highly original story, set at a kind of celestial way station housed in a dilapidated school building, is that within three days each of the 22 newly dead arrivals must select a personal memory to be recreated on film by the staff and screened to the group. All other memories will perish. Those who can't or won't choose stay behind as caseworkers.

"My original ambition was to be a novelist," said 36-year-old Kore-Eda, speaking through an interpreter at a recent interview in New York, where the film has been playing to sold-out crowds. His soft, low-keyed manner is thoroughly consonant with the compassion and decorous humor for which his film has been acclaimed.

Kore-Eda explained that the idea of the way station occurred to him ten years ago when he had just started working in television.

"I was sitting in an editing room transcribing some footage that we had shot that day," said Kore-Eda, "when I had an odd sensation: what if after you die you sat in front of a tv monitor watching endless images from your own life?"

Kore-Eda and his two sisters were born and raised on the rural outskirts of Tokyo, amid farms and fields. They drank well water and heated the bath with wood. When Kore-Eda was 6, his 73-year-old grandfather, who had been living with the family, died of Alzheimer's disease after becoming quite senile.

"I watched him ask my mother when lunch would be served not even one hour after he had just eaten lunch, or calling up the police to ask them to help him get home," said Kore-Eda. "And finally he died no longer recognizing me or himself in the mirror. So I have a very powerful memory of fear, thinking that people forget everything just before they die."

Kore-Eda's debut dramatic feature, "Mabarosi" (1995), about a woman coping with the loss of her husband to an unexplained suicide, won him instant international acclaim. But in spite of his literary leanings, Kore-Eda also has a solid documentary background, having spent 3 years as an assistant director for an independent Japanese television production company before making 8 of his own documentaries about fringe elements of Japanese society. And while "Mabarosi" was a "strictly fictional film in which every shot was storyboarded," "After Life" skilfully melds spontaneous and open-ended elements into the fiction film format.

"My goal this time was to record the wonderful things unfolding before me on location and on set," said Kore-Eda. "I wanted so-called real life to encounter the artifice of film. I was interested in the emotions that would arise from that collision."

Of the 500 people in different parts of Japan interviewed during the casting, the most memorable 13 were chosen to appear in the film telling their own stories, said Kore-Eda. One woman selects the memory of cherry blossom falling, a man the feel of a warm breeze in an open tram, a pilot the sensation of flying through clouds in a Cessna.

"I did not control what they said or give them lines to read; they told their own stories, in their own time and in their own words, and I recorded them on film," said Kore-Eda. "The remaining other half of the dead are played by actors, but even among them, only half of them speak dialogue that I gave them."

Not all the people at the way station - whether new arrivals or caseworkers - are elderly. In fact, the story is mostly told from the point of view of two 18-year-old caseworkers, Shiore (Erika Oda) and Mochizuki (Arata).

"Shiori meets Mochizuki, the other young man, who finally chooses a memory," said Kore-Eda, "Then they part. I wanted to give Shiori a clue to understanding that not everything precious about her resides simply in herself. When she sees, through the film he's left behind, that she herself is a precious part of someone else's life, she understands and values her own life differently and might be able to grow from there...

"It wasn't my intention to reflect particularly Japanese ideas about death in this film," Kore-Eda said, "but having travelled extensively abroad both with Mabaroshi and with this film, I think you can generalize that in Asia, life and death are closer than they are in the west. In Japan, the Day of the Dead is still an ongoing ritual. We believe that the dead return once a year and so we prepare them food, we even prepare them a conveyance to better enter this world for that one day. I'm certain that there's some part of me that believes that the dead can come and go."