Bringing the past back to life
Despite its title, After Life is ultimately not about heaven or hell or any of the usual life-after-death matters. Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu’s film is really about the essence of memory.
The film is set in a drab office building which serves as a way station between this life and the next. Every week, 22 people — all of them recently deceased — are assigned to case workers and asked to pick the one memory from each of their lives which they would like to take with them into eternity. All other memories will be forgotten.
The case workers then make films based on the memories that have been chosen; after the films have been screened, the dead disappear forever.
The plot, to the extent that there is one, eventually coalesces around a septuagenarian named Watanabe (Naito Taketoshi), who cannot think of a single memory worth reviving, and Mochizuki (Arata), the worker who is handling his case. Watanabe is convinced that everything in his life — including his job and arranged marriage — was dull and unexceptional.
But things take an interesting turn when Mochizuki reveals that he too is a dead person, and that he and Watanabe are of the same generation. It turns out that all the case workers are dead people who, because they could not decide on memories of their own, now exist in a state of limbo. Mochizuki and Watanabe discover other links between themselves, and these lead ultimately to a redemption of sorts for both characters.
One of Kore-eda’s recurring themes is that memory consists of both reality and fiction; memory is an act of reconstruction and interpretation, but it must also be anchored to some sort of objective reality (thus, when one man says that memories are too unreliable, and it would be better to make a film of a dream he once had, the case workers refuse to do so).
In the words of songwriter Terry Scott Taylor, we die a little every day we live; each memory we create becomes a sort of miniature afterlife for the days gone by. And our faith is in a God who will remember us and restore us when this life is through. For those who are fascinated by these sorts of issues, Kore-eda’s film is quietly compelling stuff.