If you could take only one memory with you to the afterlife, what would it be?
This simple question forms the basis for Hirokazu Koreeda’s Japanese film After Life. The movie is set in that limbo period between life and the afterlife. Before progressing to the afterlife, each person who dies arrives at a facility where they have three days to choose a memory to take with them. All their other memories will be erased, and for the rest of eternity they will have only their chosen memory to replay.
The film does not attempt to tell a story, or introduce any dramatic plot-twists. If you are looking for a movie with a well-defined protagonist, antagonist and a fast-paced storyline, this is not it. If you are the kind of person who enjoys sitting in a cafe and inventing back-stories for passers-by and wondering what their lives are like, this might be the movie for you.
The movie progresses at a comfortable, ambulatory pace, in no rush to get anywhere. It follows the stories of different people as they attempt to choose but one memory, and the role the staff at the facility play in assisting them. While some choose a trip to Disneyland, others choose memories from their childhood.
What makes this movie particularly enchanting are the little things it captures – the spark in an 80 year old’s eyes as she remembers dancing in front of her brother as a child, the embarrassed laughter with which she re-enacts the steps of the dance, cautiously singing along, and her mistakenly calling chicken rice “red rice” as a child. It is interesting to observe that most people in the movie pick the small moments which, perhaps, at the time don’t feel all that significant – the feeling of sitting on your mother’s lap in autumn, the feeling of the cool breeze on your face as you’d go to school in the tram, the feeling of flying in a plane through cotton candy-like clouds, light and airy. Koreeda’s skill for capturing human emotion in the tiniest of moments and gestures, in stolen sideways glances and that extra lingering second of eye contact, makes this movie a treat for the sentimental soul.
While most of the dead are able to choose a memory, there are the trouble few who are unable to, or do not wish to, pick a singular instance from their life. Ichiro Watanabe, a 71-year old who graduated from college, entered an arranged marriage, and worked all his life for the same company, struggles to pick out a memory he would like to take with him. While Ichiro watches videotapes of his life to help him decide, the viewer is confronted with what is probably the film’s most powerful moment. “We’ve got to change the way Japan is today. It’s up to us to build a new tomorrow. I want to leave behind some evidence of my life”, said a younger, impassioned Ichiro at a gathering with his friends. “Join a firm, work there all your life, and all that’s left is to die”, he had once said, with all the fire of youth burning in him. How eerily true.
One must also commend Koreeda’s imagination in inventing this system of memory selection for the afterlife. For once a memory is chosen, the staff at the facility must recreate it before the dead can take it with them. The second phase of the movie is an interesting journey of attempting to recreate the sights, sounds and smells of particular places and moments long gone. The staff work inside a studio very similar to film sets, and through their ingenuity create illusions of motion and seasons. The moment when the dead exclaim “It’s just like I remember it!”, with a look of wonderment in their eyes, makes the entire exercise worth it.
After Life is a brilliant exercise in taking a step back and rethinking what’s important in life. The film forces you to wonder whether the things that seem so heart-breaking right now will really matter at the end of it all. It is a reminder to enjoy the little moments, the feelings of sipping hot tea on a winter morning, of chasing kittens, of swinging with a friend in the playground.
If it feels like everything around you is moving at a 100 miles per hour and you need to slow things down, pick a quiet spot, sit back, and immerse yourself for the next 118 minutes in this beautiful work from the Land of the Rising Sun.