After Life – Wandafuru Raifu (1998)
Directed by: Hirokazu Koreeda | 118 minutes | drama, fantasy | Actors: Arata Iura, Erika Oda, Susumu Terajima, Takashi Naito, Kei Tani, Kyōko Kagawa, Tōru Yuri, Yûsuke Iseya, Sayaka Yoshino, Kazuko Shirakawa, Kotaro Shiga, Hisako Hara
If you could only keep one of all the memories and relive it for the rest of the afterlife, which one would it be? That is the question that Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda asks in his breakthrough film ‘After Life’. In his documentary-style drama, recently deceased people find themselves in a way station before disappearing from Earth forever. They have a week to choose one cherished memory to be recreated in a special film studio, so that the deceased can rest peacefully afterwards.
The concept of ‘After Life’ is very simple, although it is a loaded theme. Life after death is not easy to film, because many people have a different picture of it. What makes Koreeda’s film so special is that the afterlife is not portrayed as something terrifying or unknown. In Koreeda’s eyes it is very calm, like a warm hug from a loved one you haven’t seen for a long time. ‘After Life’ opens with a shot of an old, ramshackle building where people slowly trickle in. There they are confronted one-on-one with the fact that they have died and have ended up in a waiting room between life and death. It concerns people of young and old. They are explained that they have a week to choose their most cherished memory. After this week, all other memories will be erased. They are interviewed by a group of employees who guide them in making a choice. These interviews feel very genuine as Koreeda films these conversations as if it were a documentary. The hesitations and thoughtful looks of the interviewees give the conversations a lot of realism. The selected memory is then reconstructed. When everything has been filmed and the deceased person gets to see the short film, he disappears. This process evokes different emotions. Among other things, sadness, because the individual is now really gone forever. On the other hand, it is also a nice closing that brings happiness, knowing that the person has ended up in a good environment. This unique combination of emotions continues to alternate throughout the film, which makes ‘After Life’ an extremely special experience.
Some of the people in the film have quickly made up their minds about which memories they want to hold onto forever. A middle-aged pilot relives his favorite flight among the clouds. An old woman chooses the moment she got new clothes from her brother for her dance performance when she was a child. They don’t have to be big, extravagant memories. Koreeda shows that in the smallest details of a weekday there are beauties that will stay with us forever. Other deceased have more difficulty choosing. An older man comes to realize that his life wasn’t really that interesting after all, something he’s never had much trouble with until now. Only when he hears that he can only keep one memory does it appear that he actually has nothing to choose from. Fortunately, Takashi (Arata Iura) and his colleagues help the old man by showing him videotapes of his life that he can study quietly.
That ‘After Life’ is a slow film is excellent for the viewer. Koreeda gives us time to think carefully about what we would choose in this scenario. The philosophy of Koreeda is one that gives peace of mind, knowing that something beautiful awaits after death. ‘After Life’ also gives an energy boost to make as many beautiful memories as possible while you still can. Without a doubt, ‘After Life’ is a masterful vision of the afterlife. While some filmmakers opt for a heaven or hell with all kinds of drama around it, Koreeda opts for a small and personal space in which everyone can choose how he or she wants to furnish it. It is a film that makes everyone think and will leave a lasting impression because of the very special question of life that the film poses.