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After Life (Wandafuru Raifu) (1998)
Afterlife, the new feature by Japanese director
Hirokazu Kore-Eda (Maborosi, Without Memory) is set in a kind of halfway
house between life on Earth and the mystery of eternity. The film presents a challenge to
each character, as well as to all of us in the audience: If you could choose only one
memory, and that memory alone would remain with you forever while every other memory were
erased - which would you choose?
In this languorously
paced, beautifully realized film, we have close to two hours to make up our minds. The
characters on screen have three days. It is easier for some than for others, some must
receive extra help from the staff, and there are a few who cannot or will not make up
their minds. A special fate awaits them, and with two of these non-choosers our story
takes a soft left turn in the middle.
Along the way
Kore-Eda makes many wry comments about modern Japanese life (most teenage girls choose
Splash Mountain at Disneyland as their favorite memory - and most older men, when being
interviewed by a female staff person, choose a lurid sexual adventure). There is an equal
amount of philosophy about the passage of time itself. Old man Watanabe (Naito Taketoshi),
for example, cannot remember anything interesting ever happening to him, so he is asked to
view 71 videos, each comprising one year of his life, to prod his memory. We see the stern
and reserved Watanabe in all stages of his life and we come to understand how he could
feel the way he feels at the end.
The halfway house is set
in what looks like a small, rural school complex in Northern Japan. It is winter,
snowy and stark. The light is diffuse. You can't see out of windows, and only rarely
glimpse a view of nature - snow falling, leaves on the ground. The result is an inward
focus emulating the interior voyage undertaken by each character.
Newcomer Arata plays
the lead character, Mochizuki, and gives an arresting performance. He is the object of
affection of Shiori (Erika Oda), and it is her intervention which allows Mochizuki finally
to make his own serious choice. Their attraction for one another, even here after death,
gives more food for thought. Does love endure forever, if only in memory? Can one imagine
having to survive with only one memory, no matter how strong? How can anyone synthesize an
entire life's range of experiences into a single moment? To make that decision, what
criteria would you use?
Kore-Eda credits his
memory of his grandfather's death after a long bout with Alzheimer's Disease as the
inspiration for the film. "I remember thinking that people forgot everything when
they died. I now understand how
critical memories are to our identity, to a sense of self."
Afterlife is long and
some will find it difficult. But those who stick with it will come away both entertained
and challenged - a wonderful and rare combination.