Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Production: Engine Film Inc. and TV Man Union; color, 35mm; running time: 118 minutes. Filmed 1998, released 1999.
Producers: Yutaka Shigenobu, Masayuki Akieda, and Shiho Sato; screenplay: Hirokazu Kore-eda; photography: Masayoshi Sukita and Yutaka Yamazaki; editor: Hirokazu Kore-eda; art directors: Toshihiro Isomi and Hideo Gunji; music director: Yasuhiro Kasamatsu; sound designer: Osamu Takizawa.
Cast: Arata (Takashi Mochizuki); Erika Oda (Shiori Satonaka); Susumu Terajima (Satoru Kawashima); Taketoshi Naitô (Ichiro Watanabe); Tanitakashi Naitô (Takuro Sugie); Hisako Hara (Kiyo Nishimura); Kyôko Kagawakei; Sadao Abe; Kisuke Shoda; Kazuko Shirakawa; Yusuke Iseya; Sayaka Yoshino; Kotaro Shiga; Natsuo Ishido; Akio Yokoyama; Tomomi Hiraiwa; Yasuhiro Kasamatsu.
Awards: Montgolfiere d'Or, Festival des Trois Continents, 1999, FIPRESCI Prize, San Sebastian International Film Festival, Holden Award for Best Script, Torino International Festival of Young Cinema, and Best Film, Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema, 1999.
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.
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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.