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After Life (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 1998)

Magical Mundanity.

After Life is a story about what happens after you die. You are asked to choose one memory from your life, and it will be recreated and screened for you at the end of the week, at which point you will move on, retaining only this recreated memory, and nothing else.

The film is like a workplace documentary, set in a non-descript, plain looking building where the only thing that’s otherworldly is the heavenly white light that pours into the front entrance-way upon your arrival. The staff create the impression of a bureaucratic government department, conducting interviews and taking notes in order to recreate the appropriate memory. There’s a distinct lack of awe or marvel directed towards the situation these people find themselves from both the staff, and the newly-deceased themselves. All of this works to counterbalance the magical premise in a way that grounds the film and gives it a feeling of realism and relatability. This could easily just be a film crew interviewing random people and asking them about their memories.

The mundane looking office building where the magic happens.

The “intake” of newly-deceased is varied in age, gender and social standing, and there are some troublesome cases: Watanabe-san who has trouble choosing a memory, trying to find something that is “evidence” of his contribution to the world (surely a reference to Ikiru), and Iseya, who refuses to choose any memory at all. For the most part though, the cases are straight-forward, and seen to completion without incident.

This is both a film about remembering and about forgetting. When do we really ever take the time to look back and think about the things and people that made us who we are, that gave us hope or joy, that impacted our lives in some significant way. There is a palpable, elegant beauty in the simplicity of the memories that are chosen to be recreated by the newly-deceased, from youthful tram journeys to an idle afternoon on a park bench with a dearly held spouse, it proves that a moment does not have to be spectacular to be monumental.

Waiting to see their final memory.

The work of the staff portrayed in the film who build sets, organise costume and props, create soundscapes and prepare shots is the magic of cinema in microcosm. A group of dedicated people take notes, iron out kinks, think through problems, and build and create something beautiful from something simple and seemingly unexciting. The audience takes it in, is moved, and transported to a far away place.

It was gorgeous.


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