On his 2015 album Carrie and Lowell, indie artist extraordinaire Sufjan Stevens paid loving tribute to his mother, who had passed away three years earlier, with a suite of songs that reckoned with their tortured relationship and her struggles with mental health. But if there was one message he wanted to leave listeners with, it was the repeated refrain that closes out the song “Fourth of July”: “We are all gonna die.”
It’s one of the toughest pills that all sentient beings are forced to swallow. At some point, this life of ours is going to end. For some, that helps make the act of living seem so much more precious and exciting. For others, the fear of reaching the end and what might come after one’s last breath is a constant source of anxiety.
That’s what makes Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 1998 film After Life (Wandafuru raifu) available on DVD and Blu-ray via Criterion Collection, feel like a balm to the soul. No matter how you might view death, the great beyond that the Japanese director envisioned feels like the ideal. The souls of the recently deceased are shepherded into a schoolhouse where they are asked to find one fond memory of their days on Earth to live in for eternity. A crew of workers then recreates these remembrances as films for the dead to watch and eventually vanish into.
It’s an elegant concept of the afterlife, even if it doesn’t serve as the foundation for drama or suspense. What minor tensions arise are of an existential bent. One of the workers at this waystation decides it is time to move on into his own memory after years of helping other souls choose and duplicate theirs. A few of the recently deceased struggle to find a suitable memory, insisting that their lives were too painful or dull. Another simply refuses to make a choice.
None of this is presented with any kind of histrionics, nor does the director try to manipulate the viewers’ feelings with a film score or flashy camera moves. After Life remains calm and quiet, inspired by the stately grace of Yasujirô Ozu and the unblinking gaze of Mikio Naruse, two filmmakers that were major influences on Hirokazu.
After Life also feels fully grounded in reality. This purgatory isn’t some ethereal plane covered in clouds or, say, the futuristic theme park feel of Albert Brooks’ 1991 film, Defending Your Life. The location—a disused fisheries lab—gives it a warm, yet bureaucratic air. The workers are seen still enjoying pieces of the living world: Earl Grey tea, books, photographs, the changing of the seasons. Too, they are still privy to an array of emotions. Death apparently doesn’t remove feelings of anguish and frustration. During one planning session, one worker asks aloud, “What’s the point of all this?”
It’s a question Hirokazu has likely asked himself during his years working his way up the ladder at a TV production company and dealing with the apparent poor reception that his debut feature, 1995’s Maborosi, received. His answer is found within After Life. For as much as the film was inspired by Hirokazu watching his grandfather suffer from Alzheimer’s, it is also a tribute to the way cinema is able to capture memories and the vast imaginations of the people behind the camera.
Much of the second half of After Life concerns the making of these memory films. To add a touch of documentary realness to it, Hirokazu puts his actual crew on camera, filming them as they figure out the details of bringing these specific visions to life. It’s utterly fascinating to watch this behind-the-scenes work and it takes on a quaint charm as the dead souls arrive to fuss over the minutiae or marvel at how well the filmmakers captured their memories.
What Hirokazu doesn’t do is show us the finished products. According to an interview with the director added as a special feature to this release, he planned on having those memory films be the second half of After Life. But during the editing, he became more enamored of all the footage that his cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki captured of the behind-the-scenes work.
While that choice came via happenstance, it works beautifully. Showing the memories would feel almost intrusive. That’s especially true when you learn that many of the life details that are recounted throughout are taken from hundreds of hours of interviews that Hirokazu and his team conducted with Japanese seniors living in care homes. Some of those same interview subjects are also used as actors in After Life, blending seamlessly in with the real thespians.
I also imagine watching those memories would be almost addictive—along the lines of the characters in Wim Wenders’ 1991 film Until the End of the World getting hooked on videos of their dreams. Or at least I think I’d get obsessed with the idea of someone bringing one of my cherished memories to cinematic life.
Instead, Hirokazu has been reaching through my mind’s eye, hoping to find that one moment that I want to rest with for all of eternity. I can’t say that I have landed on it yet, nor can I trust that my memory of it is what truly happened. It’s something that Hirokazu fell prey to, according to film academic and critic Linda C. Ehrlich’s audio commentary that accompanies the film on this Criterion release.
The grandfather that inspired After Life had a tempestuous relationship with his wife and, after some particularly nasty fights, he would cut her out of family pictures and snapshots. Hirokazu has said that he recalled his grandfather repeatedly repairing the photos after the fact, but that apparently never happened.
It’s really no wonder that Hirokazu fell in love with cinema as he did. Most films remain fixed and never change no matter how many times you screen them. Your relationship and understanding of the nuances of them may grow and evolve, but the images and the way they unspool stays exactly the same. Like our eventual deaths, it is one of the few things we can be absolutely certain of.