Published: 9 October 2018
Imagine you’ve just died, but instead of going to heaven, you end up in a quaint mid-twentieth century building. Along with the other recently deceased, you take a seat in the lobby. When your card number and name are called, you are directed to a separate office, where a friendly staff member officially informs you that you have died yesterday. He courteously apologizes, “I’m sorry for your loss,” and explains the situation: in three days time, you have to choose one defining memory from your life, which will be recreated on film. On the sixth day, the film will be screened for you, and you will move on, spending the rest of eternity with that single happy memory.
After Life (1998) is a film that institutionalises death. In this institution of death, the staff members receive a new group of recently deceased people every week. Their job is to interview the dead to help them reminisce their lives and choose one memory, which they will attempt to re-enact on film. Sometimes, they have to deal with difficult clients: one client chooses an unusual memory of being in his mother’s womb. Another client claims that he had such an average life that he cannot think of any remarkable memories. Yet another client just straight up refuses to choose a memory.
Koreeda’s (the director) vision of the afterlife is surprisingly bureaucratic. The organisation has its own corporate logo, which can be noticed throughout the film on its flag, on the staff’s uniforms, on notepads, videotapes, film reels, and theatre seats. The staff members make announcements through a PA system, hold late-night staff meetings, conduct ceremonial events. There is nothing fantastical or supernatural about the afterlife. The staff members seem to behave normally like living people: they still take baths, sleep, and they even walk on the streets amongst the living. Forget about divine winged creatures doing theological work. Angels are really just a film crew subjected to the endless labour of making films.
I suppose this is what makes After Life distinct from other films about the afterlife: Koreeda makes a conscious decision to institutionalise death, rather than to exoticise the religious aspects of it. This makes it a more universally accessible film, since more audiences would be able to relate to it, regardless of their religious beliefs. On the other hand, if the film had drawn on one particular religion’s conception of the afterlife, it could potentially isolate audiences of other belief systems. This secular approach to the next world gives audiences more space to think about the more pertinent themes of the film: about how our memories define us, and about how our memories are intertwined despite the private nature of our lived experiences.
Despite the bureaucratic and secular treatment of death, the film is heart-warming and humane at its core. Most of the film consists of interviews, where the staff members help the clients with recollecting their memories. While some of them are scripted, what makes the interviewees so vibrant and believable is the fact that most of the dialogue was improvised by ordinary people interviewed by Koreeda himself. You can literally catch the moment a fond memory springs in their mind, and they just smile coyly. Older men tended to share their wartime stories, some women talked about love or childbirth. Others talked about more sensuous experiences such as food or sex.
Although they differ in ages and personalities, the staff members are all incredibly patient and earnest in their dealings with their clients. They are attentive to their client’s requests, to the point of taking careful note of all the little idiosyncratic details that make the memory special to the client, such as how the clouds look like cotton candy when piloting a plane, how it seems darker on the inside of a train during the day, or how people made much bigger rice balls in the past. What is crucial for re-enacting the memory, is to capture the phenomenological aspect of the client’s memory i.e. how the client experienced that event, rather than what happened objectively.
What happens when a client is unable to choose a memory? Well, they remain in the facility, and join the organisation as one of their staff members. It is not explicit in the film as to why this arrangement is made. Some of the staff members have worked in the institution for a year, while others have worked for decades switching between different facilities. They have all the time in the world to reflect upon what is precious about life. Perhaps through their countless of interactions with different clients of all walks of life, they might eventually come to learn what memories are truly worth carrying with them for the rest of eternity.