Following his impressive debut with “Maborosi” three years ago, 36-year-old Nipponese helmer Hirokazu Kore-eda jumps straight to the head of the queue as a major international talent with “After Life.” A slyly humorous, utterly original and generous-hearted tribute to the power of basic human attributes such as memory, love and forgiveness, the movie was a quiet hit at Toronto, where it opened the fest’s New Beat of Japan sidebar, and looks certain to gather further attention worldwide as it rolls out across other events. Pic will require dedicated handling to work commercially, but critical support is unlikely to be wanting.
Kore-eda already tackled the redemptive power of death in “Maborosi” (about a woman bound by memories of her late husband), and in several of his prior TV documentaries, but “After Life” is considerably more ambitious, spanning a whole range of people’s experiences. Though the film is moderately paced, it’s neither a depressing nor a difficult sit: The viewer is left moved and uplifted, and the pic ripens considerably in the memory.
With no explanations, the movie opens with a small group of people apparently clocking in for work on a Monday morning at a gray, somewhat shabby, school-like complex in winter. Their supervisor tells them “last week’s intake” passed on successfully; this week, there will be 22 people arriving.
The newcomers, of all ages and social backgrounds, register at a front desk and are interviewed individually. Only then, in a casual aside by an interviewer to one ofthe entrants, do we realize that everyone onscreen is dead — and that the building is a transit station between life and eternity.
Like applicants for some night school, the newcomers are each told (in friendly but business-like fashion) they have until Wednesday to select one special memory from their lives. It will then be reconstructed from their description, filmed in a makeshift studio, screened for their approval on Saturday and given to them to carry into their afterlife. All their other memories will be erased.
The newcomers are of all ages and social backgrounds, from a cute but vacuous teenage girl and a rebellious punk to WWII veterans. One elderly dame simply stares serenely out the window and busies herself arranging trinkets on the desk. The newcomers’ memories range from sex and childbirth through a dance lesson and riding a train on a summer’s day, to a final cigarette during the war and a visit to Disneyland.
From the initial briefings (shot head-on, with the interviewers’ voices offscreen) through Wednesday, several personalities emerge from the pack. The punkster says he’s going to refuse to select just one memory; another, Watanabe (Taketoshi Naito), says he has too many, so is given 72 cassettes to watch (one for each year of his life) to help him chose.
Parallel with this, Kore-eda also turns the camera on the interviewing staff, shooting these segments in a much looser, often hand-held style. The joke here is that they are all people stranded in the transit station, unable to select a memory of their own. More seriously, two of them — young Shiori (newcomer Erika Oda) and Mochizuki (Arata, also debuting) — become profoundly affected by their contacts with the newcomers, for separate reasons that play out movingly at the end.
Using almost no music, and shooting in a style that varies between immaculately framed compositions to a looser, almost docu style, Kore-eda has created a movie whose texture grows slowly, like layers of paint. Much of the pic’s success owes to the casting — mixing actors with non-professionals — which builds into a memorable tableau of faces on which both experience and innocence are writ large. Equally breathtaking is the film’s basic concept, an apparently simple idea that gradually embraces not only the huge changes in post-war Japanese society but is also valid for the human experience as a whole.
Kore-eda’s eye is genial rather than heavily serious, and his people are ones you’d basically like to spend more time with. And despite its insights, “After Life” is a movie above all: Later scenes of the memories being re-created on film show a simple delight in the pure artifice of cinema.
Performances are difficult to single out, though young newcomers Oda and Arata are fine as the interviewers and Naito ditto as Watanabe. Tech credits are pro.
Kore-eda had the idea for the film 10 years ago but started pre-production only in early ’97, sending out assistants to ask ordinary people the same question as that posed in the movie. Of the 22 newcomers, 10 are played by non-pros, who are expressing their personal, unscripted feelings.