After Life, 1998

Early Monday morning, four overworked, dedicated counselors are given a motivational speech by their supervisor in preparation for the week’s heavy caseload. A distant bell tolls, and one by one, people emerge from the fog into an empty station, declare their names to an unseen receptionist, and bide their time in the waiting room before being summoned. A gentle, mild-mannered woman, Tatara Kimiko, is the first to be called in to meet her counselors, Mochizuke (Arata) and Shiori (Erika Oda), who officially confirm that she has died. She nods with courteous acceptance. Mochizuke proceeds to explain to Kimiko that she has three days in order to select one memory from her lifetime. The single memory will be reenacted on film by the staff, and will serve as her only connection to her past – her physical existence – into the afterlife. Other people seem to know immediately what memory they want to capture for eternity – a trip to Disneyland or a sexual encounter – but find themselves eventually selecting a more meaningful, personal memory. Another chooses a fleeting moment of comfort and humanity after experiencing a terrible ordeal. A brash young man, Iseya, speaking to another counselor, interrupts the instructional explanation. “So everyone ends up here? You mean whether you were good or bad or whatever, all that stuff about going to hell if you’re bad… Not true? Everyone’s here?” He disagrees with the abandoning a lifetime of memories in favor of only one, and refuses to choose. At another session, an expressionless, pensive old man, Ichiro Watanabe, wants to find some evidence of his life, and Mochizuke arranges for archived videotapes of Watanabe’s life – from his arranged marriage of convenience to his uneventful management career – to be sent for his review. A third case proves to be difficult: a sweet-natured elderly woman, Nishimura, whose memories have been inextricably locked within the mindset of a little girl. How does a person already resigned to her memories, choose a single one?

Hirokazu Kore-eda seamlessly synthesizes the creative visual imagery of feature film with the provocative honesty of the documentary to create the sublimely poignant and haunting After Life. Similar to Alain Resnais, Kore-eda examines the complex, symbiotic relationship between memory and altered perception. Objective memory, as shown through videotapes, provides a factual, dispassionate chronicle of actual events. Perspective memory, as related by the subjects to their receptive counselors, reflects a biased, emotional attachment to the actual event, and is often affected by retrospective significance. Interpretive memory, as recreated by the staff on film, is a fabrication of the actual event, and is limited by time, resources, and the accuracy of the information provided by the subject. Is one form of memory more important than another? Does precise memory define truth, or is ingrained memory an interactive process that leads to personal, and ultimately relevant, truth?

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