A F T E R   L I F E   (1998)

W A N D A F U R U    R A I F U

      P U R G A T O R Y   A S    S T E E R A G E

Hirokazu Kore-eda was 36 years old when he directed this film. He started out in college wanting to be a novelist. Then he went to work for an independent Japanese production company [TV Man Union] before striking out on his own. He is generally regarded as a documentary filmmaker. His filmography only lists 9 films. He started out as an independent in 1991. His first three documentaries were quite successful. Then he jumped into the arena of feature films. He enjoyed tremendous success with his brilliant docudrama, MABOROSI (1995)—which is still regarded as his masterwork. Then he directed another documentary, WITHOUT MEMORY (1996). This helped him come to grips with the trauma connected to some of his early childhood memories. When he was six years old his grandfather came to live with his family. The grandfather had Alzheimer’s disease—and he was in the advanced zombie stages. As a child he watched his grandfather wither and pull further into himself daily—finally to die as a confused stranger—not recognizing anyone or anything in his environment. Following this endeavor, Kore-eda then wrote, produced, edited, and directed AFTER LIFE (1998)—which stirred up a lot more critical praise.

I adore films about the life after life—or in this case, that transition period of life between lives--commonly referred to as a state of purgatory. The Roman Catholics consider this a time for “expiatory purification”, or “a place of punishment wherein, according to Catholic doctrine, the souls of those who die in a state of god’s grace may make satisfaction for past sins—and so become fit for heaven.” It is also considered,” a place or state of temporary suffering or misery.”

But Kore-eda has created quite a different and unique place—a way station where all souls must stop for one week. They are counseled and told that they are “dead”—and that they are in transition. Then they are tasked to review their lives and come with one—and only one—favorite memory. There is a kind of odd vagueness regarding this “favorite” memory. Should it be an epiphany, or pivotal moment—or just some pleasant thing that floats to the surface? The staff will then create a filmed record, a recreation of that moment/experience—and they will view it on the seventh day. [Pretty heavy symbolism there.] The souls will view the film clips—all attending together in a theatre with a nice screen and good sound system. Once viewed and relived and connected with—then the soul would be allowed to move on—to somewhere—to something. There is no utterance of Heaven or Bardo or

This middle world—this stopping place—it is explicated is a mandatory halting for every soul. When asked by one of the dead if everyone stopped there—the good, the bad, the evil, and the saintly—he was told,” Yes, everyone stops here.” Later it was suggested that there were other, many other, way stations that performed the same function. God, I would hope so. The station in this film was processing 22 souls that week, and they had processed 18 the week before. Even in —at that rate, they certainly were not keeping up with death. Of course there is that old Zen argument that on the other side Time does not exist anyway—so that being the case—what was the rush? Why couch everything in earthly terms? Comfort and familiarity perhaps—or 50 other options never explained or addressed.

The largest bone of contention I had with this lovely little film was its central premise—the pick one memory motif. Many of us would like to believe that we are in lesson in this present lifetime—and possibly have been for several others. There is supposed to be an accounting of our lifetime—the wonders of a colorful cavalcade spiced with a torrent of emotion as we watch our “Life Review”. We look at the goals and outcomes we had, as spiritual entities, set for ourselves—and during the “review”—we can assess how we did. I don’t believe that that there will be a panel who will sit in judgment of our past life—but there may be counselors. In that scenario every moment of our former life—every single memory has value. So when the premise of projected purgatory encompasses being mandated to pick one solitary memory—and to eradicate all other earthly memories—the many-colored multi-striped hairs on the back of my metaphysical inner self cries out in protest—no—no—and hell no! To be forced to make this choice in one week—or to have to stay on at one of these way stations as a staff member—for me is beyond tedious, arduous, and trivial. It borders on being egregious.

This is perhaps the first time a film has affected me thusly. I have witnessed many, over the decades, who railed against this film or that, for some reason or other—moral, religious, patriotic, ethnic, racial, sexist, and so on—but never me. And now I have to join the club. I could not enjoy this fine quiet movie as a mild titillation—as a gentle spiritual stirring. No—my emotions were in turmoil—and they colored my reactions. I have seen the film more than once—and I had the same reaction each time—so I guess this is integral to my personal make-up. Each of us, sooner or later, has to face our own mortality—and has to find a comfort zone as we ponder on and endeavor to pre-construct some workable scenario regarding the after life. So, I apologize, Kore-eda San. I could not approach your views, and the sweetness of your film with an open mind and an open heart.

Sanjuro of LIBERTAS wrote,” The eccentric theology of this film is matched by the eccentric conceptualization of the film-school purgatory—which looks like a run-down-at-the-heels junior college—or an abandoned government office. This film is a seriously intended meditation on life’s redemptive moments—as well as an affectionate homage to the filmmaking process—but Kore-eda’s strength is clearly lyrical rather than philosophical.”

Hirokazu Kore-eda, in an interview, said,” The idea of the way station came to me ten years ago while I was working at the TV Man Union. I was sitting in an editing room transcribing some footage that we had shot that day—when I had an odd sensation. What if—after you die—you would sit in front of a TV monitor watching endless hours of images from your own life?

      It wasn’t my idea to reflect particularly Japanese ideas about death in the film—but having traveled extensively abroad with this film—I think you can generalize that in Asia—life and death dwell closer than they do in the West. In —the Day of the Dead is still an ongoing ritual. We believe that the dead return once a year—so we prepare their food. We even prepare them a conveyance to better enter this world for that one day. I’m certain that there is one part of me that believes that the dead can come and go.”

It has been written that,” Kore-eda makes documentaries about the fringe elements of Japanese society. AFTER LIFE skillfully melds spontaneous and open-ended elements into the fiction format.” Elements of this film remind me somewhat of Abbas Kiarostami’s THE WIND WILL CARRY US (1999)—in which the line between documentary and fiction is consistently and successfully blurred and blended—creating something new—using the format of a documentary, often including non-actors as participants—but fusing it to a dramatic and/or philosophic modality. In AFTER LIFE, during the several scenes in the make-shift “studio”—where the staff created sets and did their consultations and rehearsals—and in some cases cast younger persons to portray their memories of youth—we kept getting glimpses of the same director, assistant director, and cameraman. With 33 names listed in the credits—I could not find any actors portraying the “director” or crew members. I wonder if it actually was Hirokazu Kore-eda and the real crew that shot AFTER LIFE. It seemed likely—and just the possibility that it was true made those studio scenes hum with more humor and humanity. I also felt that Kore-eda’s fixation on video and television monitors and images on video tape was strongly reminiscent of many scenes in Atom Egoyan’s FAMILY VIEWING (1987).

In most of the catalogs—AFTER LIFE is considered a “narrative” film. In THE HARVARD FILM ARCHIVE it is written,” Kore-eda has become a cinematic tightrope walker—who almost unnoticeably switches between fictitious and real territories—between narration and invention—the private and the public.”

Maybe it was just me—but with both recent viewings I had the nagging feeling that the film felt like a rough cut—that there was a lack of cohesion in its structure—that several moments and some scenes seemed arbitrary, clunky, and jagged at their edges; that the movie needed more focus and a stronger through line. I have been assured by lovers of the film that every moment and every scene was pregnant with symbol and deep meaning—and that changing any of it would destroy its identity and purpose. I am aware that there were pivotal scenes and moments for the two primary characters—Shiori Satonaka (Erika Oda) and Takashi Mochizuki (Arata)—and perhaps they were served up as a probable or workable denouement. But it just didn’t happen for me. I needed a hosanna and I was given a whimper.

After some research I discovered some more about the odd structuring of the film. Kore-eda said,” My goal this time was just to record the wonderful things unfolding before me—on location and on the set. I wanted so-called “real-life” to encounter the artifice of film. I was interested in the emotions that would arise from that collision.

     I interviewed 500 real people—and picked 13 of them for the film. I did not control what they said—or give them lines to read. They told me their own stories—in their own time and in their own words—and I recorded them on film. The remaining other half of the dead are played by actors—but even among them—only half spoke dialogue that I gave them.”

One ingredient I did like about this film was the notion that on the fringes—the quiet outskirts of all our cities there are usually huge old abandoned buildings. We have all seen them--and perhaps even explored some of them—old factories, warehouses, schools, and hospitals. They stand for decades—empty, dark, dank, and always sad. So it really is a pleasant concept to consider that they are in fact being used—in some capacity—by a ghostly staff on phantom business—even as we stare at them.

I did appreciate the cinematography of this film. It was attributed to two cameramen—Masayoshi Sukita and Yutaka Yamasaki. It is my understanding that one of them filmed all of the original interviews, and the other shot the more “formal” part of the film. One odd thing noted while studying their careers. Sukita has only lensed on 3 films, and AFTER LIFE was his last one. Yamasaki has been a head lenser on 5 films, and AFTER LIFE was his first one. I don’t really know “the rest of the story.”

The cinematography for the majority of the film was completed by only one cameraman.  It certainly set the tone and much of the mood for the whole picture. At one point we discovered that the season for the film was near Christmas—during the winter. This played out the drama like all those overlapping vignettes did in CRASH (2005), occurring over the Christmas rush. The most striking imagery was presented in the prologue and epilogue. There was an open double wide doorway, leading into a kind of pagoda-like foyer—shot from twenty yards inside. The doorway is bathed in a bright foggy white light, and initially there are no images within it. But suddenly shadowy figures began to materialize out of the bright fog—one at a time—entering and talking softly to an unseen receptionist. They give their name and they are told to wait in an adjoining anteroom.

Other images haunt you post-screening—like when the staff members meet first thing in the morning, they scrub up their desks and the hot steam rolls off the rags. In another scene two characters drink tea, and as it is poured out in colorful cups—the fat swirls of steam lazily spiral off them—flickering as they catch the light—and this had a marvelous calming effect on me. A winter storm started slowly, and soon the thickening snowflakes filled up the vastness of the whole screen as they shimmered and danced. Tall bare trees began to bend their boughs with the weight of the new snow. We had dozens of scenes that opened up in tableau—imaging empty rooms, hallways, stairwells, courtyards, and unoccupied rooms sporting many dark shadow-drenched windows juxtaposed to those fewer more solitary windows that blazed with light—interspersed with wide open spaces that stayed inert and empty until some character would enter the frame and cross through. All these scenes were filled with mostly muted colors of gray and brown and black—only punctuated with the occasional appearance of red, yellow, or blue here and there—on a piece of clothing, or a window sash, or some of the furniture. The bright red chairs in the viewing theatre seemed extra cheery after spending so much time in the grayness surrounding it. This subtle use of color was not used to excess, but it set the tone for a solitude laced with silence and contemplation.

James Berardinelli of REEL VIEWS wrote,” AFTER LIFE is quite a different kettle of fish. The premise is one that has intrigued human beings since the dawn of history—what happens after death? Kare-eda’s solution, however, has the distinction of being unique—unusual for a movie set in this arena. [Including films like STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN (1946), ANGEL ON MY SHOULDER (1946), IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946), HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1978), MADE IN HEAVEN (1987), and WHAT DREAMS MAY COME (1998).] In Kore-eda’s “place”—there seems to be no heaven or hell, no god or religion, and no angels or demons. At the heart of this film lies a kind of enticing and intellectually titillating concept that will have the audience examining their own lives. So AFTER LIFE is intellectually satisfying—but emotionally cool—without emotional connection. There are too many characters and too little time accorded to any of them.”

I did not respond well to the low-tech approach that the “staff” employed to facilitate their duties. What could have been interpreted by some as a kind of sweetness, or uncluttered naked charm—I found to be just awkward, illogical, and uncomfortable. For instance, during the scenes when the souls were sprucing up for their graduation day—all of them using their hair dryers—and this blew out the circuit breakers for the whole way station—it all seemed just third-world Slavic silly to me.

Later in the film, when Shiori went out scouting for locations to film the most recent batch of memories—I became confused again. I did not mind that she found a lovely green grove of bamboo for one filming—that could have been near the way station—but when she got to the great city—resplendent with sky scrapers, freeways, congested traffic, a glut of neon and video flicker signs, and all the décor and trappings with several stores decked out for Christmas—I could not comprehend where Kore-eda was taking us. As phantoms, could they and the newly arrived souls just arbitrarily visit any part of the “real” world they wished? Were they unseen and undetected? One staff member had mentioned that as spirits they were only allowed one opportunity a year to return to the land of the living—on the Day of the Dead. If that were the case—then what was Shiori doing and where was she? Did that throbbing city and those denizens of population also inhabit the “limbo” world—or what?

When of the main characters, the young man, Mochizuki, still looked 22 years old—the age he died at fifty years prior during WWII. He mentioned that over the decades he had worked at several way stations. His epiphany came close to giving me some kind of emotional connection. By finally realizing that his short life did have meaning—that the woman whom he left behind continued to love him and honor his memory. She was able to accept a marriage without passion—a rather pedestrian and sedate life with a colorless husband—and she would visit Mochizuki’s grave annually. Her picked favorite moment was a sit down on a bench with Mochizuki in uniform—just before he shipped out. He died in the fighting in the . So Mochizuki was able to get permission to have his chosen memory filmed—and of course, after viewing it—he too was able to “move on”. It seemed odd to me, since these hundreds, if not thousands of way stations were all manned by those souls who could not choose a memory—that Mochizuki’s incident was the first time any of those lost souls found a connection and moved on too.

There seemed to be a suggestion that his assistant, Shiori—who obviously had a “thing” for him—that he never really acknowledged—was forced to end her internship and become a full-time counselor. Two significant things wrapped up the film. Shiori was making some small steps forward in her spiritual journey—and the young man who was the only dissenter in the last group of souls, Yusuke Iseya, became her assistant. I felt while watching the movie that Yusuke had done a fine and meaningful job. I thought he might have been an actor. Actually he wasn’t. His dialogue—which probably were his own thoughts and words—challenging the hokum of the film’s premise, the rules of the way station—rang true. He articulated many of my own feelings. Another favorite character of mine was the nearly mute old lady, Kiyo, who mostly stared out the window at nature, or spent hours gathering leaves, acorns, and plants. She seemed to be a real person—and she actually was actress, Hisako Hara. Go figure.

With the successful transition completed for Mochizuki—and the insights given to Shiori—there occurred a lemon wedge of closure—a kind of point of view for the picture—that by understanding the lives and thoughts of other people—this will assist us to better understand ourselves. As a teacher of the blind, and the legally blind, I have always found that principle to be clarion—and beyond dispute.

It is strange though, trying to analyze my visceral reaction to and my emotional rejection of this film. Kore-eda’s choice to make the way station an unattractive minimalist environment was not a bad one. I certainly did not need to see the state-of-the-art CGI effects, to bounce into HARRY POTTER country, in order to immerse myself in the world of the play. I guess what was missing was the “magic”—that old celluloid intangible—that creative spark of the divine.  Roger Ebert loved the film. Most critics responded quite favorably to it. Ebert mentioned that he was pleased that the film did not get the “ ” treatment. He seemed very receptive to the low-tech approach as illustration. He was receptive. He found it “refreshing”.

I had heard the buzz about this film for years, and I was really looking forward to viewing it. Perhaps I expected too much—wanted too much—had expected it to “answer” some specific after life and spiritual questions. Instead, it just posed conundrums and bent perceptions and offered a silly and unworkable postulation. I do applaud the creativity that Kore-eda exhibited, and I understand the sweet sadness and the insight conveyed in it—and by it.


 I would rate this film at 3.5 stars.

Glenn Buttkus  (2005)