Visiting and Revisiting: After Life (1998) Pt. 2
Rik: I want to go back to that article on The Guardian website about Kore-eda. The interviewer asks him about After Life, and how the interviewer found it hard to think of a memory that would qualify as “heavenly”. Kore-eda’s response was “If you can’t choose, it means that you are still alive. Choose, and you’re dead.”
It rather pissed me off at first when I was watching the film and discovered that there was a character that insisted that he could not choose. I thought the character was just being contrarian or thinking himself a “cool” rebel. I thought, “What a fucking jerk,” from the very first moment I met him in the film. But when it was over, and I seriously considered whether I could choose a single memory, I realized that I would not wish to do so either. The penalty of not choosing means you are stuck in wherever this agency exists to work in what is essentially a form of the film industry. You get to have lunches with cute girls like Shiori and carry on some form of existence, where you can still create and think and dream and ponder existence? Did I mention you still get to have lunch? Seems like heaven to me.
So, I was very pleased to see Kore-eda’s response. And I think reading that response sold the film to me even more, because it wasn’t just a wishy-washy film based ultimately on a theological lesson to be learned or an idealized vision of a heavenly realm, but was really only willing to be held accountable for more existential discussions. But if the viewer still prefers to be sad that so-and-so chose this or that in the film, they can have that emotion as well.
Aaron: Thus far we’ve avoided the actual plot of the movie, but I think it’s time we delve into it a bit. Though the film follows several characters and treats them all as important and meaningful and deserving of our attention, the real backbone of the piece is the relationship between Takashi, one of the workers, and Ichiro, a recently deceased man who shares a surprising connection with Takashi. That relationship is not fully revealed until the end of the movie, although it never feels like it’s being withheld for dramatic purposes. We only see that Ichiro is having trouble choosing a memory, and Takashi seems to be taking a vested interest in helping him, but until the end the audience assumes that this is because the two are from the same generation (though Takashi seems to be decades younger, this is because he died in World War II). In fact, after World War II ended, Ichiro ended up in an arranged marriage with Takashi’s fiancé, who, it turns out, never stopped mourning him. Once again, we see something that could have been treated as emotionally manipulative schmaltz underplayed beautifully.
All three of these characters, Ichiro, Takashi, and the woman they both loved, Kyoko, choose variations of the same memory. Ichiro chooses a quiet moment on a park bench with Kyoko shortly before she died; Kyoko chose a memory of the same park bench, where she sat with Takashi shortly before he shipped off to war. Takashi also sits on the same park bench, but instead turns the camera to those he has spent the last three years with, working and resting and living. It’s a beautiful ending, one that has me smiling once again as I type, but it once again raises the question of what those memories will signify once everything else has been wiped away, and also implies a more troubling line of thought that may actually say more about me personally than it does about the film. But first, lets try to unpack the threads in this.
Does the fact that Ichiro chooses a memory of Kyoko, even though Kyoko’s memory was of a different man, alter what those memories mean? Would Ichiro have chosen differently, or felt differently about his wife if he knew she had chosen to forget about him once she moved on? And what does it say about Takashi that he chooses to forget about life entirely and remember only purgatory? In Kyoko’s memory, as I brought up earlier, will she remember that Takashi died in the war? Will she remember he was her fiancé, or even what his name was? Likewise for Ichiro: will he remember that their marriage was arranged, that she had loved another man, and that she had died before him?
Rik: I think that Ichiro keeping the memory of his wife, even with the further knowledge that she chose a memory with Takashi instead has a lot to do with the times and social setting in which he lived. Arranged marriages might seem horrific to us now, but they would have been more standard in Ichiro’s youth. Emotion was supposed to be held in check and replaced with duty to one’s family, honor, and social standing. Having grown up in this mindset, it would be (at least on the surface) easier for Ichiro to remain committed to the memory of his wife of many years, no matter her ultimate feelings for a past love.
As for Takashi, my take is that he was a very young man when he died during the war, and while he has only been at this facility for the past three years, I assume he has been kicking around doing social work for many, many more, at least 50-plus years (at the time of the making of After Life). He has spent more time in this “afterlife,” as it were, than he has living a corporeal existence. So, why shouldn’t the fact that he prefers to choose a moment in his afterlife to his rather brief existence on the planet be shocking? If he is happy in his work, is good at it, and has made great companions, why shouldn’t he?
I think it has been fairly well proven that our memories, no matter how much we cherish them, are really not to be trusted. We tend to embellish them the longer we hold them, details from other “memories” can drift in to another one, or if it is an event that we don’t recall as well as others, we can often err in the recollection in an effort to keep up a front. And the angle from which we see something, even an emotional angle, can be wildly different for other people within that same memory. I can tell you about the memory of my skipping on the stairs of the 4th Avenue Theatre ready to see Pinocchio at the age of 4, and tell you what a perfect day that was, and my mom might tell you that I was being a little shit all day long and crapped my pants as well.
Aaron: To the film’s credit, that is a concern that Kore-eda brings up in the film itself. There is a character that is caught embellishing her memories, and then another who, once she’s watching the memory being filmed, realizes she got some details wrong and finds the experience quite disturbing. Kore-eda realizes that memory is faulty, and not likely to be a depiction of absolute truth, and I think he’s OK with that. I believe that in this film’s theology, the point isn’t to depict an accurate slice of your life, but to recreate the emotional feeling you’ve carried with you all those years. Perhaps that’s what the memories do; they remind you of the feeling of being alive. But here’s where it troubles me, if I allow myself to think about this too long. Do the dead take that memory as a keepsake, as I brought up earlier, or do they live within that memory? If they live within one memory for eternity, would that begin to feel like hell after awhile, no matter how good the memory? And if all of the memories associated with that one memory are gone, what emotion can possibly remain?
As I said, it’s a can of worms that probably speaks more to my own neuroses, but if I allow myself that’s the hole I start to go down. It’s weird that I suddenly became critical of this, right here at the end, because even with those questions After Life remains a marvelous, beautiful film that fills me with happiness and, yes, a feeling of love for my fellow man. Which, sad to say, is not my default state, as I’m sure you can empathize.
Rik: I suppose it could be considered a hell of your own making in a way, wrapped up in a heavenly disguise. I am assuming that if you can only take a single memory with you – putting aside the consideration of whether you had to live forever within that memory itself -- then yes, it would be a hell, because I would then surmise that your ability to think critically would be severely stunted because you wouldn’t have access to most of your own mind. And even if you could access everything in your brain except the remainder of your memories, wouldn’t it drive you insane as you watched or lived within this memory, over and over and over again, and all the while trying to figure out what it means, and why nothing else ever happens to you? If you could still think, wouldn’t going over a single moment in time repeatedly make you absolutely batty?
The more I think about this, for this to not create such an outcome, the dead in this film – or at least the ones who choose to move forward -- are basically committing themselves to a form of supernatural lobotomy, where they are rendered incapable of grasping the meaning or understanding of something while being trapped with that single memory, drooling like an idiot for eternity.
What is your take on the relationship between Takashi and Shiori, the assistant social worker with whom he shares an unspoken bond? For the entire film, there is obviously something between them, but we don’t really get a clue how deep it might run until Shiori, upset that Takashi has decided to move on fully to the afterlife and choose a memory, throws a conniption fit and kicks and throws snow around. And just as Takashi heads to film his “memory,” she confronts him about her own reluctance to move onward, and says, “If I choose, I’ll have to forget all about this place. So, I won’t choose. I’m going to keep you inside me forever. I can’t bear to be forgotten by any more people.” It’s my favorite line in the movie, and the saddest as far as I am concerned. It also seems to me to be the moment where Takashi really realizes what he must do. Your view?
Aaron: I always felt like the relationship was a little one sided on Shiori’s part. Obviously Takashi is fond of her, and he may have eventually grown to love her, but within the period that we see he is clearly a little ignorant as to Shiori’s feelings. I’m actually at a bit of a loss as to how I would define Takashi’s character overall. He’s not exactly a cipher, he has a personality and inner thoughts, but we’re never really privy to them. We see the stuff about his former fiancé, and we see that it moves him deeply, but he plays everything close to the vest.
Shiori is a bit more of an open book, probably owing to their generational differences (though they appear roughly the same age, Takashi is around 50 years her senior). Shiori wears her emotions openly, and I believe the line you quote is probably the heart of this entire movie, and gets to the fears and concerns we have about death. Not just that we’ll be gone, not just that the Earth continues without us, but that our emotions, our love, will disappear as well. That would make Takashi’s choice at the end of the film, to remember his time in purgatory, a powerful symbol of love and caring. He’s given this group of people the highest honor you could imagine in this theological system; they will never be forgotten. When they’ve all moved on and possibly forgotten each other, Takashi will still remember them, and the emotions he felt, and the help they gave him.
Look at me… I’m all over the map with this one. Feeling unease at the system on display in one paragraph, and then arguing the opposite just a few moments later. That, I think, explains its endurance with me. Though I find myself happy after each viewing, I still find myself puzzling it over in my mind for weeks, months, or years afterwards.
Rik: There is a shot early on where we see a doorway in a darkened entrance, and the doorway is lit from the outside, but we cannot see anything clearly out there because there is a mist or fog obscuring it. We then see that week’s arrivals make their way one by one through the door. To me, the building (and the city, if indeed there is a city, in which it is located) exists out of time; perhaps in another dimension. The workers in the building arrive each morning, and we see their apartments, so we know they carry on an existence, just perhaps on another plane unearthly. They eat lunch, make small talk, and have repressed feelings for one another, in the case of Shiori and Takashi. It is not unreasonable to expect there are numerous other agencies like this, because more than twenty people die each week in Japan, and this facility seems to average about twenty entrants per week. So, it is also not unreasonable to assume there is a functioning city built around this afterlife industry, and thus.
The question is: is it an otherworldly city built on top of the city we would know on Earth? I am not really surprised by the scene where we see cars and people walking around, but the question is if they are in our world or theirs. The only other explanation that I can reason out is that the workers of the waystation and the applicants for the afterlife are ghosts and are occupying buildings that exist in our dimension but go unseen by the regular populace. It doesn’t explain how they are able to have possessions, eat, and move things around without scaring the crap out of earthly inhabitants, and since we never see any evidence of such behavior, I prefer to accept that the entire city and the movements of its occupants exists outside of our own dimension, but is an exact replica so that the workers of the agency can go out and study locations for film shoots.
Aaron: As much as my mind constantly goes to this sort of pragmatic detail, I have to remind myself that this film is an allegory and not meant to be taken literally. As much as I may want to know how something works, or if the people who pass by Shiori in the outside world can see her, I realize it’s beside the point. We know that other waystations exist, because Takashi says he worked at one until three years prior to the movie’s opening. I think it stands to reason that there are several in each major city, at least one in every small town. Probably they exist like FBI field offices, dotting the world in a frequency that matches the local population.
We could also ponder what those stations would look like in other countries, or to other religions. No one we see questions the theological implications of the film, which is of course to the film’s credit. No one seems surprised to not see St. Peter, or clouds or pearly gates. Everyone, in fact, seems to be almost expecting what he or she finds, which looks like nothing they have been prepared for by any religion. But as you mentioned earlier, the film’s lack of theological specificity is one of its greatest aspects, and gives After Life the universality that the real afterlife would hopefully have.
Rik: Here is a stray thought that I had while watching this film. All of the applicants are Japanese, but I wonder what would happen to someone not of Japanese descent if they were to die in Japan. Would they automatically go to a different way-station run by others of their ancestry? Are the Japanese waystations only for the Japanese, and so on? It might have been cool to have an American of non-Asian descent who perhaps had a heart attack on a plane at the airport end up in the waystation and not be able to comprehend most or all of what was being asked of them.
Aaron: Now that you’ve put that idea in my head I find myself excited about the possibilities of it, but I also think it would have been a bit out of place in this film. It would have pulled focus from the already large cast and possibly veered too far into comedy or tragedy. But, of course, that could just be my own love of the film balking at the idea of tampering with it.
Rik: And one more thing I have been pondering --and I am sorry to take this into the realm of comedy, when this film, while lightly humorous in moments, is not a comedy – the use of technology in the film. Ichiro is made to go through piles and piles of videotapes in trying to select one of his memories. Given that the film came out to theatres in 1998, when DVDs were really just taking hold of the film industry, was this a comment on Kore-eda’s part upon governmental facilities and how behind the times they often are in regards to keeping up with technology? I figure that whatever administration (read: supreme being) is behind the curtain, as it were, would have the capabilities of having the most up-to-date means of processing the millions of people that die each year.
And Ichiro and Takashi’s memories extend to World War II, when videotape was not yet invented. When the deceased arrived at the facility in those days, did they have to go through old newsreels of their memories? Was it silent films and then picture books before that, and matted prints and scrolls before that?
Aaron: I think you may be onto something there. I always felt the VHS tapes were just a sign of the times, and honestly I think that might still be the real reason behind things; it was probably just what came to mind when it came to filming that scene. But then, it also fits the somewhat ramshackle nature of this whole department. Everything looks a little handmade; the workers begin each day by communally cleaning their offices. They live in little dorm rooms and brew their own tea and grow their own plants and make their own music. It doesn’t seem like they have the largest or most opulent budget imaginable, and so it would make sense for them to be slightly behind the times. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if they were still using VHS today.
Rik: Well, I think it is pretty obvious that I really liked this film and you are trapped in slavish devotion to it. But I also feel that as much as I enjoyed it (and have now seen it three times in the past month, though it is finally time to return it to Netflix), I will probably not revisit After Life for a good while, because I have lived in it a little too long. I find pondering such affairs somewhat uncomfortable, especially at length. However, given how much After Life and Hana resonated with me (Hana even more so), I am likely to give more of Kore-eda’s films a shot in the future, as long as I can find them. But I will add that if I can find a decently priced copy of After Life anywhere (it seems to be out of print in North America and prices currently start around $90 for a copy), then I am going to grab it. Because you never know when I, like you, are going to need to see this again. Any last thoughts?
Aaron: I think calling my love of After Life ‘slavish devotion’ might be exaggerating things slightly (though only slightly). Clearly, even after all these years and all this discussion, I’m still unsure about several things within the film, and haven’t completely made up my mind about everything. However, this is a film that always fills me with a sense of enormous well-being, of joy and warmth and love. Hirokazu Kore-eda became a name to watch for me after this film, and I’ve been following him ever since, eagerly tracking down his newest releases (several of which remain unavailable in North America). A couple months ago I was lucky enough to see the North American premiere of his newest film, Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary in Japan), after which he gave a short Q&A. He came across exactly as you would expect him to, based on his films. He was thoughtful, generous in his answers and time, and funny in a subdued manner.
I have no advice of where to go next in pursuing his filmography; I tend to think they are all worth at least one viewing. Through his filmography ‘humane’ does seem to be the most apt word to describe him, as his affection for his characters works to leaven even the most depressing aspects of his films. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed this film, and even more glad that you’ve enjoyed at least one of Kore-eda’s other works. I look forward to discussing them all with you in the future, even though we may not document those discussions for posterity.
Rik: And we shall leave you with that. Check back with us in the near future for a Visiting & Revisiting discussion of the super-schlocky 1978 Italian sci-fi "masterpiece," Starcrash aka The Adventures of Stella Star!