A selection of the newly dead arrive in the afterlife to be told that they must choose one special memory to last them for all eternity. No one finds it easy, especially Mr Watanabe, who claims that his life had no defining moment. But everyone has something – don’t they?
Japan 1998, 118 Minutes
Every Monday morning another group of souls enters the shabby corridors of a dull, institutional building. Each is interviewed by a clerk. This could be any one of a number of government departments, but here the clerks ask each one for their happiest memory. These are souls indeed; the newly-dead, and the memory they choose will be recreated for them by actors and technicians before the soul passes on into eternity, all other memories deleted. One of the clerks, Mochizuki, has a problem. His client, Watanabe, can’t decide. In a mundane life no defining moment sticks in his mind. Mochizuki can sympathise: he couldn’t decide either, that’s why he remains a clerk, helping others towards their own personal paradise but unable to go there himself. Just another week in Limbo.
This isn’t the first film to explore life after death, and the idea that a civil-service bureaucracy awaits us on the other side isn’t new either. The film’s Japanese title translates as Wonderful Life, a conscious allusion to Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. But director Hirokazu Koreeda, an experienced documentary film-maker, uses it to explore, among other things, the connection between the reality of events and our recollection of them, the importance of happiness and memories to our sense of ourselves, and the role of fictional and documentary cinema in our perception of the world. It’s a fantasy movie with only the most primitive special effects, used to recreate the character’s memories. So little is needed to spark the memory into recreating a precious moment.
After Life has had only limited distribution, and the Observer critic Philip French urged readers not to miss any opportunity to see it ‘before Hollywood produces a remake’. It would be a very easy film to spoil: by the use of technical wizardry for the recreations, thus negating memory’s role, and by introducing sentimentality into a genuinely moving story. Even Hollywood couldn’t take away the big questions: what would your chosen memory be? Would you really want to live in it forever? And aren’t the bad memories as much part of you as the one Precious Moment?
Takashi Mochizuki: Atara
Ichiro Watanabe: Taketoshi Naito
Kyoko Watanabe: Kyoko Kagawa
Shiori Satonaka: Erika Oda
Director, Screenplay: Hirokazu Koreeda
Producers: Shiho Sato, Masayuki Akieda
Photography: Yutaka Yamakazi
“One of the really great films: compelling, compassionate, deeply moving. The Kafka-esque setting emphasised the warmth & humanity of the characters. The minor ones were brilliant, especially the lady with the pre-packed memories.”
“Quite outstanding – a fascinating film.”
“So humane & strange; like ‘Solaris’? Heaven’s ante-room clearly underfunded, like our NHS!”
“A film obviously made with great sincerity, proving you don’t need a huge budget to make a good film.”
“Fascinating insight into another culture & different lives.”
“An interesting idea but so many characters & flashbacks that I could never understand it all.”
“Intriguing but too many films in one: some very odd cutting.”
“A good thesis, movingly worked out.”
“Food for thought.”
“Interesting idea but rather long.”
“Let’s hope Michael Winner makes no films beyond the grave!”
“I enjoyed the piano!”
“A silly idea uninterestingly done. The sub-titles were so obscure that it looked deliberate.”
“Boring & tedious.”
“Very difficult to make out the sub-titles.”
“Difficult to read sub-titles.”
“Sub-titles made it difficult to really enjoy this: I suspect it was a wonderful film.”