In Hizoku Kore-eda’s After Life (1998), the dead are tasked with selecting a single memory to bring with them into the afterlife, which will be recreated as a film that they’ll watch for eternity. This singular cinematic vestige is a distillation of everything the departed wishes to remember of their time on Earth; their most definitive moment alive. As a video essayist and documentarian, Kore-eda treats the film’s high concept with a dry pragmatism that foregrounds the human elements of his characters above its fanciful premise. After Life’s production began to take shape with Kore-eda interviewing hundreds of Japanese nonactors and posing to them the same question as the deceased in the film. Kore-eda would later integrate their candid and unaffected testimonies among the performances of scripted actors. What further grounds After Life is setting the purgatorial way station to be a tidy but spartan boarding house staffed by meticulous mid-level bureaucrats who help facilitate the process. Addressing the highly mythic subject material of the afterlife with mundane practicality makes the audience’s attention more sharply attuned to the souls passing through limbo, rather than the logistics of the limbo itself.
The runtime consists mainly of long takes of the interviewees carefully recounting their most cherished memories, wistful in having to reckon with the brevity of their lives but nonetheless pleased in recognizing the radiant pleasures that life once contained. The task of singling out a single moment offers a chance to reconsider memory as an episodic series of events and sensations rather than a narrative to be understood in its totality. In the case of the character Watanabe, who finds difficulty in conceptualizing his life as a navigable arc, finds he can most aptly bottle the most essential sentiments of his life with the memory of a day in the park with his wife. Another peculiarity of recollection highlighted by Kore-eda is how frequently that the most immediate and compelling fragments of the past surface as the seemingly trivial sensory details of a moment: In the film the way a lovers hands were folded in their lap or the particular hue of a dress they wore as a child are the most indispensable details that they feel are inseparable from the memory itself. Even non-visual sensations like the humidity of a crowded tram are details that the dead insist upon emphasizing in the creation of the film, minutiae crucial to the clarity of that particular moment in their lives. The acuity offered by a camera allows these vital moments to be expressed, a close up of a lover’s hands or the sweat collecting on a tram-riders temple not only convey the tactility of the memories but can more wholly and intimately capture the emotional undercurrent of the reminiscence.
The strange emotional charge placed on trivial sense impressions can best be explained by the proclivity for psychic value to be captured and recounted via association rather than the literal content of the memory. Watanabe’s day in the park is his most sacred memory not because of the particular profundity of the conversation with his wife or the beauty of the scenery but what that precise moment connoted to him the saving grace in an otherwise unremarkable life: the unspoken love and affection of another. In the case of a woman remembering the hands of her lover, the hands themselves have a symbolic worth of his bodily presence in that time in her life, before he was drafted to the army where he would die. Likely due to sorrow of their lives having come to an end, each of the memories selected by the deceased carry a peripheral sorrow to the central bliss. Kore-eda was himself struck during the preliminary interviews that many of the answers were memories of hardship and melancholy. Perhaps it is the sadness that is the most difficult to contend with and articulate, and the most dutiful means to capture the feelings of a life is to express it through analogies and symbols, and let the circulating emotions that surround them remain internalized.
The imaginative faculties are difficult to restrain during the vivid descriptions of the storytellers, and it becomes an instinctive habit to color the stories with mental images of our own, thereby producing a unique interpretation of how that moment could exist through images. Furthermore, the viewer’s inevitable reaction to After Life is to consider what memory they themself would select, and how it would appear to them if filmed. Amidst the reminiscing and mental mise-en-scene, every audience member becomes a conceptual filmmaker—representing their inner reality through the lens of the audiovisual medium of cinema.