WANDAFURU Raifu (After Life)
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
There are few topics so near to a filmmaker's heart and soul as that of artistic creation and of the creation of films in particular. After Life, part parable, part fantasy, is a film about the choices and dilemmas that face filmmakers, who must sift through the human experience to choose which images contain the power to inspire and endure.
After Life is the story of a week in the death of a group of twentytwo newly deceased souls. After their various demises, they arrive at a sort of halfway house between the living world and the afterlife, where they are interviewed by ghostly counselors who brief them on the next stage of their journey. To their surprise, they learn that they will spend this week selecting one joyful memory of the life they just left. This memory will be filmed by the crew of counselors and they will be allowed to take only the film of that one memory with them into the afterlife.
This motley group contains diverse souls: a teenage girl, a shy old woman, a punked out rebel, a staid war veteran. Each member reacts to this unexpected after-death routine in a different way, and the unfolding of their search for the perfect memory provides the dramatic thrust of the movie. The tone of After Life is both melancholy and comic. Though its premise is fanciful, director Kore-eda anchors the film firmly in the pedestrian, setting his post-life limbo in what appears to be (and, in fact, is) an abandoned school, with institutional beige walls and dilapidated furniture. Kore-eda's vision of the afterlife is neither mystical nor sentimental, but simply a probing search for the essence of experience.
The director of After Life has been obsessed throughout his career with the subject of memory, placing it again and again at the center of his films. Trained as a documentarian, he approached After Life by first conducting hundreds of interviews, putting the film's central question to his subjects: what memory would you choose from all your life to keep forever? Along with the dramatic story line of the film, Kore-eda intersperses these interviews, giving After Life the feel of an other-worldly documentary.
The film, whose title literally translates as "Wonderful Life," was named for Frank Capra's 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life, which also relies on the device of a protagonist revisiting his memories to gain meaning from his life. Unlike most other memory films, however, Kore-eda refuses to use flashbacks to show us the memories of his characters. "I've made it a rule never to show what someone is remembering," he has said "because you begin to participate in the atrophying of the viewer's imagination."
Instead, Kore-eda uses the film-within-a-film to emphasize the mutable nature of memory. Even our most vivid memories may be limited or embellished by time, desire, and imagination, just as the most faithful film must necessarily alter events by the act of reproducing them.
After Life, therefore, acts on many different levels. It is a gently humorous look at the tragedy of unfulfilled life. It is a modern history of Japan seen through the memories of those who lived it. It is a quizzical look at the predicament of the artist who seeks to preserve and illuminate the human condition. In a subtly ironic twist, those who refuse or are unable to choose a memory to film remain on as the filmmakers in the blandly institutional limbo, counseling the newly arrived dead about how to sort through their lives.
Holden, Stephen, "In Death, a Fond Remembrance of Things Past," in The New York Times, 12 May 1999.
Klawans, Stuart, "Memory Hotel (It's Haunted)," in The Nation, 24 May 1999.
Johnson, William, "Hirokazu Kore-eda: A Japanese Filmmaker and His Use of Memory," in Film Comment (New York), July 1999.
Arata ... Takashi Mochizuki, counsellor
Erika Oda ... Shiori Satonaka, trainee counsellor
Susumu Terajima ... Satoru Kawashima, counsellor
Takashi Naitô ... Takuro Sugie, counsellor
Kyôko Kagawa ... Kyoko Watanabe, Ichiro's Wife
Kei Tani ... Kennosuke Nakamura, boss
Taketoshi Naitô ... Ichiro Watanabe, who cannot choose his favourite experience
Toru Yuri ... Gisuke Shoda, who talks about sex
Yusuke Iseya ... Yusuke Iseya, who refuses to choose his experience
Sayaka Yoshino ... Kana Yoshino, talks about Disneyland
Kazuko Shirakawa ... Nobuko Amano, who talks about her affair with a married man
Kotaro Shiga ... Kenji Yamamoto, who wants to forget his past
Hisako Hara ... Kiyo Nishimura, old lady who loves cherry blossoms
Sadao Abe ... Ichiro (as young man)
Natsuo Ishido ... Kyoko Watanabe as a young woman
Afterlife, the new feature by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-Eda (Maborosi, Without Memory and most recently, Nobody Knows, 2004) is set in a kind of halfway house between life on Earth and the mystery of eternity. The film presents a challenge to each character, as well as to all of us in the audience: If you could choose only one memory, and that memory alone would remain with you forever while every other memory were erased - which would you choose?
In this languorously paced, beautifully realized film, we have close to two hours to make up our minds. The characters on screen have three days. It is easier for some than for others, some must receive extra help from the staff, and there are a few who cannot or will not make up their minds. A special fate awaits them, and with two of these non-choosers our story takes a soft left turn in the middle.
Along the way Kore-Eda makes many wry comments about modern Japanese life (most teenage girls choose Splash Mountain at Disneyland as their favorite memory - and most older men, when being interviewed by a female staff person, choose a lurid sexual adventure). There is an equal amount of philosophy about the passage of time itself. Old man Watanabe (Naito Taketoshi), for example, cannot remember anything interesting ever happening to him, so he is asked to view 71 videos, each comprising one year of his life, to prod his memory. We see the stern and reserved Watanabe in all stages of his life and we come to understand how he could feel the way he feels at the end.
The halfway house is set in what looks like a small, rural school complex in Northern Japan. It is winter, snowy and stark. The light is diffuse. You can't see out of windows, and only rarely glimpse a view of nature - snow falling, leaves on the ground. The result is an inward focus emulating the interior voyage undertaken by each character.
Newcomer Arata plays the lead character, Mochizuki, and gives an arresting performance. He is the object of affection of Shiori (Erika Oda), and it is her intervention which allows Mochizuki finally to make his own serious choice. Their attraction for one another, even here after death, gives more food for thought. Does love endure forever, if only in memory? Can one imagine having to survive with only one memory, no matter how strong? How can anyone synthesize an entire life's range of experiences into a single moment? To make that decision, what criteria would you use?
Kore-Eda credits his memory of his grandfather's death after a long bout with Alzheimer's Disease as the inspiration for the film. "I remember thinking that people forgot everything when they died. I now understand how critical memories are to our identity, to a sense of self."
Afterlife is long and some will find it difficult. But those who stick with it will come away both entertained and challenged - a wonderful and rare combination.
Director/Screenplay – Hirokazu Kore-eda,
Producers – Masayuki Akieda & Shiho Sato,
Photography – Masayoshi Sukita & Yutaka Yamazaki,
Music – Yasuhiro Kasamatsu,
Production Design – Hideo Gunji & Toshihiro Isomi. Production Company – TV Man Union.
Arata, Taketoshi Naito, Erika Oda, Susumu Terajima, Takashi Naito, Kei Tani
Plot: In the afterlife a group of workers deal with an assortment of newly arrived dead. Each of the new arrivals has one week in which to select their single favourite memory so that the afterlife workers might reconstruct and then videotape it and the arrivals can then pass on and inhabit that memory. But some of the arrivals have difficulty choosing a memory.
This marvellous little Japanese film has a quiet effectiveness that kind of creeps up on you afterwards. The whole film comes with a sublime simplicity. Its’ vision of the afterlife is conducted with a wonderful minimalism – this afterlife takes place not in Grecian palaces in the sky or the grandiose visions of classical artwork come to three-dimensional life as in What Dreams May Come (1998), which came out the same year, but rather in what looks like a disused schoolhouse. There is almost nothing to the film other than a series of vignettes with various people standing about being interviewed – and almost despite this, the film manages to be an absolute delight.
The interview scenes are conducted with an endearing sense of humour – the old lady who says nothing and simply looks out the window, the teenage girl who wants her trip to Disneyland recreated, the young punk who immediately announces he is refusing to choose anything. Director Hirokazu Kore-eda has a genuine affection for the banality and foibles of the people’s lives and the film manages to paint each of its subjects with considerable amusement, yet also a quiet dignity.
Unlike What Dreams May Come, After Life makes no pretense to any profound insights into the afterlife or human spiritual condition. But the two films, each in their own way, both manage to offer unique humanist revisions of classical afterlife imagery. Although quite the opposite of What Dreams, After Life’s vision of the hereafter comes with an enchanting banality, one where the afterlife volunteers have as many clues as to why they are there as anybody else does. The latter quarter of the film is highly amusing when it comes to the recreation of each person’s memory and in the sheer mundanity of the afterlife volunteers’ attempts to get the details right – not having the right plane for one memory scenario and having to saw the wing off the plane they do have and then send pieces of cotton wool past on wires to represent clouds; or a tram scenario that is revealed as a mockup being rocked by two of the volunteers. Quite a charming film.
After Life (Wandafuru raifu)
By Jeff Vice
An eternity in this "After Life" would be a pretty pleasant fate.
The obvious comparison for this thoughtful, meditative Japanese fantasy is Wim Wenders' beloved 1988 film "Wings of Desire," which dealt with similar subject matter. And while it's not quite as good as that — by just a notch — "After Life" is original enough that it can stand on its own merits
Some audience members may be put off by the film's depiction of heaven (at least a part of it) as a dingy-looking, barracks-type building that's badly in need of a few coats of paint. And the slow pace may turn off those who who crave action instead of such brain food as genuine character development.
But for those with patience, the film is a touching ode to life, love and memories — as well as a reminder for audiences to make the most of their time on Earth. That message may creep up on you slowly, but it will likely linger for days.
You also have to respect the movie for its seemingly bizarre origins. Former television documentarian Hirokazu Kore-eda began by asking ordinary people about their happy memories, then used those to script dialogue for his "recently deceased" characters, who are on their way to the Great Beyond.
The review below is best read AFTER you see the film--it is a spoiler!
This film, written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, gets an "A" (in my book) for conceptual creativity. Afterlife (also known as Wandafuru raifu or "Wonderful Life") truly challenges its audience (as well as its characters) to ponder deeply the meaning of life and death. The story is set in what one might call "limbo," although here this consists of an entire world which looks, feels and is populated exactly as the real world. The characters, however, are all deceased and we accompany them through their first seven days of this "limbo" during which they must decide on only one memory from their life with which they will spend the rest of eternity. While the many characters wrestle with isolating a single significant memory from among many, or from among none, we in the audience will inevitably begin thinking along these same lines, searching for criteria whereby some past moments are deemed more valuable than others. Should a "fun" moment be prioritized above a "serene" moment? Or how about the moment of sexual ecstasy or the moment of secure love?
To the sound of a bell tolling, the newly deceased file into the cloud-filled lobby of what appears to be a school building. There they are each assigned to a staff member for processing. This is one of several such "processing centers". It is the task of the center's staff to help the client decide on a single memory, ascertaining as much detail as possible. The accumulated information is then used to recreate the memory as accurately as possible using film sets and props. The memory is ultimately captured on film and shown to the individual. Once the memory is thus "relived," the deceased disappears, carrying the single memory (and no other) with him/her into eternity. This must be accomplished for each client within a 7 day period.
The interviews are quite fascinating and are presented in documentary style. In fact, most of those interviewed are not professional actors/actresses and seem to be genuinely grappling to answer the questions posed with actual memories. The Japanese friend I watched this film with was convinced that these were actual interviews. Whether or not they were rehearsed (I also thought they were impromtu), the documentary style really draws the viewer into the process and the entire experience seems quite sincere and meaningful.
The story moves sequentially through each of the seven days during which we become increasingly familiar with both staff and clients. In particular, we follow Mochizuki, who has been working as a processor for the last 50 years following his death in the war in 1945 at age 22. Though he still appears 22 years of age, he has to date seen countless souls off to eternity, helping each deal with the difficulties, joys and sorrows of deciding upon a single, life-defining memory. The story serves as much of a coming-to-realization for Mochizuki as it does for this particular week's clients, and by the end of the film, Mochizuki himself will have discovered his single memory.
He has not, up to this point, been able to choose a single memory, and for that reason he has been assigned a position on the staff. In fact, all those who work for the processing center were unable to decide on a memory, for one reason or another, and so all remain in the state of limbo until they are able to come to terms with what restrains them from choosing. Some are unable to choose out of anger at their sudden, seemingly unjust, misfortune. Others cannot choose out of the great sorrow they have for loved ones left behind. And still others will not decide out of sheer rebellion against authority. The vast majority of clients, however, do as they are told and eventually come to decide on a memory of significance to them.
This movie is quite profound and will leave you thinking. This review has used the word "limbo" (which is often otherwise employed to refer to a Catholic notion of "purgatory" following death) to describe the location, but to be honest to the film, it must be recognized that this is a foreign term that does not have place in the Japanese psyche. Shinto does not have a well-defined eschatology whereby the afterlife and all that it contains is delineated. And so while Westerners might view this film, associating the staff as working for the "Big Guy" while they help the clients off to a "heavenly" destination, there is none of that implied in the story. Rather, those working are those who are trapped (through inability to choose) and those who pass through do so by entering the frozen moment of a single memory. Even the Processing Center is simply located in an abandoned school building within the world of the living, a world which the story's characters can see while they themselves remain invisible to it. The fact that Kawashima, another staff, admits that he is unable to see his (living) young daughter except on the Obon Festival (the Japanese Day of the Dead) seems to suggest that they account for the ghosts which the world of the living has notions of. (This fits well with common explanations that such ghosts are at "unrest" and have yet to come to a true resolution regarding their death, since the staff are staff precisely due to their inability/unwillingness to choose a memory and pass onto eternity.) Here there is no "god" or heaven, no angels or demons, no judgment, salvation or sin; just the presence of a single rule (ie, "Choose a memory") which may or may not be obeyed.
The film concludes, as I said earlier, which Mochizuki's own choice regarding his memory. Through circumstances that arise through interviewing one particular client, Mochizuki is faced with someone else's recollection of his life, which provides him a new perspective on its meaning and value. The story's conclusion has real meaning and depth. I felt as if I had witnessed a meaninful and satisfying statement. This is probably one movie which, if remade for American audiences, will lose everything in the translation.
Some of my own thoughts:
They use the Japanese word "shunkan" for instant or moment when they talk about how at the very instant (masa ni sono shunkan) your memory has been shown to you, you will move on to...that other place, eternity. Where you are guaranteed to live forever with your one precious memory. We see this graphically when Mochizuki is filmed sitting by himself on the bench realizing that he has made someone else happy, that he has been a part of someone else's happiness. His head is down, then he looks up into the camera and there is a cut to the film crew filming him (and us) and the staff all standing there, too. Then we see the staff lined up in their seats at the screening, then the screen goes dark and they run the film of Mochizuki. When the lights come back up, his seat is empty!!
Prior to this, we have seen Shiori agitated on the roof, kicking and throwing snow and crying. She enters Mochizuki's room later, in the dark. He is asleep. She says:
"You are going away, right? You are going to choose. I can tell. You are going to choose a memory with her, right? Why did I have to help you. I am so stupid."
Mochizuki says to her:
"At the time, I searched desperately for any memory of happiness inside myself. Now, fifty years later I have learned that I was part of someone else's happiness. What a wonderful discovery. You, too, someday will find this."
Shiori, not wanting to lose Mochizuki, replies,
"I won't choose. If I choose, I will have to forget about this place. Therefore, I won't choose. I am going to keep you inside of me. Forever. I cannot bear to be forgotten by any more people."
Mochizuki assures her,
"I will never forget what happened here, I promise." Perhaps he CAN make that promise because his memory apparently includs all the staff and crew who stand there behind the camera filming him. So, Shiori and the others ARE part of his memory.
Ever the disgruntled critic, Iseya thinks that the whole system needs to be "rethought." So how does that leave us? By the "whole system" does he mean that our very existence needs to be "rethought"? This is what makes a very beautiful, charming and sometimes innocuous film go very deep and challenge us. You have to love that! If the final lesson is that our own individually happiness is inextricably linked with the happiness of others, then doesn't that make Willsmette's motto, "Not Unto Ourselves alone Are We Born" seem prretty right on?