Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 24 February 2005
Source New Yorker Video DVD
Visions of the after life in the Western world tend to emphasize doughy clouds, robed figures, and large, deep-voiced men with flowing beards. (Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life is the rare exception in Hollywood, though the robes remain intact). Kore-eda Hirokazu’s After Life, on the other hand, willfully evades such baroque conventions, portraying the hereafter as a rather cold and grey bureaucracy. Here, social workers probe the memories of the recently deceased to find the one reminiscence that they would like to take with them to eternity.
Thoughtful, quiet, and deeply sympathetic, Kore-eda’s film comprises multiple narratives, large and small, affectionately seeking out singular moments in the lives of its characters (which include a prostitute, a little girl, and, in a nod to Ikiru, a stifled businessman named Watanabe). Once identified, these moments are recreated in a film studio by the caseworkers, providing the individual with a perfect cinematic recreation of their memory to inhabit for perpetuity.
Kore-eda’s notions of the after life therefore address many of the familiar connections between death, memory, and the cinema – the newly departed are asked to revisit their fondest recollection as though it were a scene in the movie and (in the film’s single mystical gesture) are at that moment transported out of the movie theater to live that memory for eternity. This device echoes Pasolini’s observation (made in a quite different context) that film editing “performs on the material of film … the operation that death performs on life” – that is, giving a sequence of uncertain and unstable events a coherent form and meaning. Thus, Watanabe reviews what he finds to be a dull and uneventful existence (with the assistance of the unfiltered, unstable, and “live” medium of video) only to realize that there was some measure of worth in his life after all. With its meditative, humanistic tone, After Life is the cinematic reminiscence of limbo itself, this transitional space of contemplation and nostalgia.