Alternative English title: Wonderful Life
Production Company: TV Man Union, Engine Film
Release: 17 April 1999
Length: 118 min.
Format: 35 mm
Director: Koreeda Hirokazu
Screenplay: Koreeda Hirokazu
Photography: Yamazaki Hiroshi
Editor: Koreeda Hirokazu
Shiori: Oda Erika
Kawashima: Terajima Susumu
Sugie: Naito Tsuyoshi
Watanabe: Naito Taketoshi
Dirty old man: Yuri Toru
Memories … of the Way We Were
How far back can you remember? For me, it’s hard to tell. Memories of my early childhood are such a mix of recollections, family photos, and stories that I can’t always tell which are the real memories and which are not. This question is probably even more difficult to answer for today’s children, videotaped from day one until their whole existence becomes summarized on magnetic tape. When they look back on their lives, can they pull out any memories not influenced by the media around them?
There is one character in After Life who actually does look back on his life on video. One of a score of people who died and find themselves in a dreary, run-down institution acting as relay station to heaven, Watanabe (Taketoshi Naito), an old gentleman, is given a week to pick one special memory from his life. Once he has, the memory will be re-created on film, allowing him, after he views it, to go on to heaven with just that one thought in mind.
Watanabe, however, cannot remember anything good; his life, it seems, has been that dull. The tapes of his life that he borrows (shot by God, perhaps?) are then meant to jog his memory, but one can’t help but ask, “Are the tapes sufficient?”
Watanabe’s tale is only one of many in Hirokazu Koreeda’s rich ensemble film, but it proves central not only narratively, interweaving as it does with the stories of his case worker, Mochizuki (ARATA), and Shiori (Erika Oda), the female employee who loves Mochizuki, but also thematically. What meaning does our life have if we cannot recall a single important memory?
The place of memory in human existence is in fact one of the central themes of Koreeda, a director who began in the world of television documentary. Not only was his first feature, the award winning Maborosi, about a woman trying to come to grips with memory of the sudden suicide of her husband, but much of his TV work revolves around the issue. Without Memory (1996) documents a man who, due to a hospital mishap, cannot build up any new memories, and Kare no Inai Hachigatsu (1994) portrays the last year and a half of the life of an AIDS victim as a series of memories of him, trying to put on video what was important about him.
The problem with memory, however, is that it is not always reliable. Several of the dead in After Life, for instance, cannot recall accurately what happened and some lie outright. Fiction, it seems, seeps into the records of our existence.
Koreeda explores this problem through a mixture of fiction and documentary in After Life itself. Much of the movie is beautifully shot in semi-documentary style, with both head-on “talking head” interviews and short handheld shots using a long lens. The content itself is partially based on reality. Many of the recounted memories were culled from interviews with older Japanese, some of whom actually appear in the movie telling their own tales. Even the actors were given the freedom to speak of their past before the camera.
Which stories are real and which ones are fiction is impossible to tell, which is probably something to be expected of a world where, once one decides on a memory, it is not archived, as with Watanabe’s videotapes of the actual incidents, but recreated using all the tricks of the movie business, from cotton clouds to paper cherry blossoms.
That Koreeda’s characters see these reproductions and find them real speaks volumes about our memories, but one wonders what the documentarist Koreeda then thinks about the relation between fiction and documentary. At times, After Life seems dangerously close to the trite celebrations of cinema as a repository of our memories found in Cinema Paradiso and Niji o Tsukamu Otoko, and many of the issues the film raises about media and experience are not pursued. Koreeda, an extremely skilled but not always original filmmaker, gives us an enjoyable, emotional film, but one that, given its themes, is at times a bit too easy to digest.
After Life is most fascinating when seen in the context of Koreeda’s work as whole. In Without Memory, the victim actually tries to use video as a means of supplementing his impaired memory, but it doesn’t work. Something else, it seems, is needed for such media to become “real.”
Some of the dead in After Life do not choose a memory within a week’s time, because they either cannot or refuse to. Those who do not choose stay on as employees to help the subsequent dead select their memories.
In some ways, that failure reflects something lacking in their life, but in other ways it doesn’t. Like Mochizuki, one gains the opportunity to involve oneself in the memories of many. But isn’t that like what Koreeda is doing, both in his fictional and documentary work? Kare no Inai Hachigatsu is in some ways about that, about the director realizing he is no longer an observer, but an intimate participant in the memories of his subjects.
After Life is then not merely a celebration of memory turned cinematic, it is a statement that our memories–and lives–are real only to the extent that they truly involve others, whether through the medium of cinema or not.
Reviewed by Aaron Gerow
Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 15 April 1999, p. 9
Copyright 1999: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow