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With: Arata, Erika Oda, Susumu Terajima, Takashi Naito, Kyoko Kagawa, Kei Tani
Written by: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Directed by: Hirokazu Kore-eda
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 118
Date: 09/10/1998

After Life (1998)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Memories Are Made of This

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

After Life, directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu (Maborosi), was featured at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival and is now in regular release. This is a very special movie, unlike anything I've seen in a long time. It concerns a way station where people arrive after they have died. While there they are given three days to choose a single memory from their lives to be re-created, filmed, and previewed. Each person then goes on to an eternity in which they will be able to live in that one memory and no other.

In a way, After Life is about movies as much as it is about memory. It suggests that movies are almost better than our actual memories because they are more accurate. When the way station's film crews went to work filming people's memories it struck me as odd that everyone was extremely happy with the re-creations. No one says, "that's not right at all!" There's a feeling of trust and safety that comes of this, just as we trust Kore-eda to guide us through his imaginary way station.

Needless to say, some people have a hard time choosing their special memory. Some people's choices are oddly simple or seemingly meaningless. But each one is touching in its own way. One young girl wants to choose a visit to Disneyland. When a staff member informs her that nearly all young girls choose a Disneyland memory, the girl changes her memory to one of laying in her mother's lap. When a man has a difficult time choosing, the staff orders him to review videotapes of his life. As he sits through them, he discovers a moment -- not of his own happiness -- but one in which his wife from an arranged marriage seemed happy. It's a simple moment of the couple sitting on a park bench talking about the movies.

Kore-eda interviewed a huge cross-section of Japanese citizens to come up with the memories in his screenplay. A lot of them are about war, lending a bittersweet quality to the movie. One young man was killed in war at a young age. Unable to decide on a memory, he has worked as way station staff for decades. After meeting a man with whom he shares a connection he finally makes his decision and moves on.

After Life is a fully satisfying experience, not only on an artistic level (it's beautifully filmed and paced), but because one can't help connect with it and join in on its game of choosing memories. It's quite an achievement that a movie about death can be so hopeful.

At long last, in 2021, the Criterion Collection released this wonderful film on Blu-ray, in a new 2K restoration, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Bonuses include a commentary track by film scholar Linda C. Ehrlich, new interviews with Kore-eda and cinematographers Masayoshi Sukita and Yutaka Yamazaki, deleted scenes, trailer, and a liner notes essay by novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen. It's a beautiful release, and highly recommended.

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