March 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

I missed Hirokazu Koreeda’s After Life when it came out here in 1999 (and it seems to have had trouble finding a distributor). At last I’ve seen it, though only on DVD. What an extraordinary film: a masterpiece.

In a shabby building surrounded by autumnal trees, a benign and diligent bureaucracy presides over the arrival of the newly dead. This is a place of transition where a new intake is received routinely every Monday morning. In the course of the week each of them must choose and relive a single happy memory which will then be recreated on film. The bliss of this memory will accompany them into eternity, erasing all others.

It’s a tall order choosing a memory for once and all. Koreeda shows us the first responses of the assorted group, who range in age from a teenage girl to people in their 80s. He cuts from one to another as they try to decide, helped by the facilitator’s gentle prompts or eliciting of details. Some come already prepared, like the woman who describes the joy of meeting her fiancĂ©, believed dead, on a Tokyo bridge at the end of the Second World War, or another who is radiant at the memory of holding her newborn child after the pain of labour. Some talk about the happiness of childhood: playing in a bamboo wood after an earthquake, dancing. One man has nothing good to remember, a dark hint of shame in this confession. A 21-year-old with spiky hair asks whether the place he’s come to is for everyone, the good and the bad. Yes, is the answer, and likewise there seems to be no division for an ultimate destination. What a relief to have Hell dispensed with, one of Christianity’s most appalling inventions, a horror-filled escalation from the shadowy nether realms of antiquity.

There’s a naturalness in these interviews, nothing contrived or sensationalised, as if we were watching a documentary on a typical week in a post-death processing centre. And there’s a corresponding vein of quiet humour. In fact Koreeda began as a director making documentary films that explored memory and its depletion through cognitive loss caused by injury or Alzheimer’s.

Unfolding through different memory-scopes, the film subtly and intricately expands. As characters talk we are reminded that remembering involves not just the visual image in the mind’s eye, but the auditory and every kind of sensory: touch, taste, smell, movement in the air and the kinetic movement of the body. ‘My tongue remembers’ says one of the caseworkers, recalling a flavour from childhood. We are reminded too that memory is an act of creation; it can call up its own fictions, unaided or often suggested by images, most often photographs and films. After Life continually plays on the conjunction of memory and cinema. Just as film, especially when viewed on a big screen in the dark, can approximate to dreaming, it can also take us through a tunnel to the past. It can give form to memory. This potential is literally enacted on the day when the chosen memories are recreated by the caseworkers and their technical helpers, with amateurish means but painstaking care.

The centre does not deal only in subjective memory: it has an archive of the lives that pass through it, a kind of celestial record of daily scenes, held on celluloid or videotape (Heaven following in the wake of technology, if not exactly keeping up). Viewing them is only for special cases, such as the man who can’t think of anything in his ordinary life worth choosing.

Everything in this film is understated; even its revelations, the answers to its hovering unvoiced questions, are intimated gradually rather than made dramatic. There are no flourishes. The pace is slow. Yet, in its fluid dynamic between the physical and the metaphysical, so much is happening. There are present lives here (of a strange and interesting sort) as well as past lives. Every shot is charged, with colour that flashes or glows, altering like the facets of a jewel to lift the sombre mood of institutional rooms: on an office folder, a flowering pot plant, a cardigan. Koreeda uses a static camera for the interviewees. Behind them we see the same section of wall between two windows, or else another wall, framed by handsome pieces of furniture. The two compositions are beautiful in the way of the formal Japanese aesthetic. The first is active as the camera seizes the movement of light at different points in the day or evening, so that the wall can change from pale green to mauve to beige, varying under each window, through which we discern the shapes or shadows of the trees outside, while the second composition derives its energy from the arrangement of light and colour against objects. He does something similar with sound, so that we may have to work at locating the speaker in a group, to orientate our perception towards a voice off-camera. All of these nuances compel us to see and hear better, to notice the particularities of things.

And we cannot but enter into the choice his characters face. What would we choose and why? Or would we refuse to make that choice?

Death has great weight in all of this, despite the moments of lightness, of equanimity. The first interviewee is greeted with the words ‘You died yesterday. I’m sorry for your loss.’ The narrative advances bearing a mute sorrow for the death blow to the young. We watch how they mourn their bereft selves.

But the film’s original title apparently translates from the Japanese as ‘Wonderful Life’. This is more apt by far than ‘After Life’, for the film is above all about life, supremely using its own materiality, as cinema singularly can, to convey this. It is about seeing, hearing, feeling what life gives us so that death cannot steal it before we know it’s there.

Though the DVD makes it possible at least to see a visually reduced version of After Life, if any film demands to be viewed on a big wide screen in a darkened auditorium, it is this one.


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