In a modern technological world, with the eruption of AI devices, social media and virtual reality, the whole concept of death seems so abstract. Morsels of some kind of memory can always be attained in video form, with the loss of a loved one squished into the confines of a screen and their thoughts etched not onto diaries but onto the walls of Facebook. How one chooses to immortalise themselves is a concept explored in Hirokazu Koreeda’s extraordinary 1998 film After Life, a film recently restored into 2K glory by the Criterion Collection.
Quality of image, whilst certainly welcomed from the brand new Criterion release, isn’t Koreeda’s priority, however, with the stuttering fragility of the films original version eliciting a soft, ethereal power from its 16mm celluloid source. Its narrative is one with its roots soaked in Japanese fantasy, set in a strange purgatory-like facility in which the deceased enter to the gong of a church bell and engage in a post-life meditation. Here, each individual has a week to choose one memory of theirs to keep for eternity; then, the team at the facility will recreate this memory for them as close to reality as possible.
Each assigned to an individual purgatory social worker, the primarily elderly individuals engage in interview-like sessions to determine which memory they’d like to choose. Interviewing over five hundred people from various social backgrounds in the development phase of the script, director Hirokazu Koreeda asked individuals the same question as the actors in the film and was “intrigued by how often people chose upsetting experiences,” according to a statement from the filmmaker. Koreeda also recognised, “As they tell real stories for the camera, people inevitably fictionalise aspects of them, consciously or not, because of pride or misunderstanding”.
After Life alternates between real-life footage of these interviews, as well as scripted ones, with people recalling events as subtle as a loved one’s soft breathing, to the grand spectacle of piloting a plane. As the film softly wanders onwards, these critical memories change upon every recall and are revised, enhanced and adapted further once they are recreated by the facilities team of filmmakers. Koreeda, as such, creates an intrinsic link between reality and fiction, alluding to the dynamic nature of memory itself which changes and shifts as we grow older. What is a memory but an artificial recollection of bygone feeling?
As Koreeda recalls in the film’s original press kit, the nature of memory is fragile and fleeting, “I saw that human emotions are the sparks that fly when ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’ collide. In this film, I wanted to explore the consequences of such collision by investigating the uncertain area between ‘objective record’ and ‘recollection'”.
Continuing, the director states, “Although the memories in After Life are presented as real experiences that are later reconstructed as film, you can’t really distinguish the stories characters tell as “truth” and the recreations as ‘fiction’. They intertwine with great complexity”.
Koreeda’s film is a quiet act of reflection and contemplation that finds itself infatuated with the ebb and flow of memory, reflecting an idea of oneself that is constantly changing with every new day. In the act of recall and constant consideration, the people of Koreeda’s After Life grow and evolve, finally finding solace in the memories that truly illustrate the essence of their lives. Only the second film of Hirokazu Koreeda filmography, After Life is a subtle masterpiece that would bring international recognition to the great Japanese filmmaker and help to shape his influential cinematic style heading into the 21st century.