You don’t know it at first, but this is purgatory. Well, a way station might be a better description. Regardless, all the clients who arrive are deceased, and it’s up to the clerks to get them to the next place. To do that, they ask each client to select one, and only one, memory from their life. The clients have three days to do this. With a memory chosen, the clerks recreate it with the utmost attention to detail on soundstages, film it, and then project it for the clients. This they do in four days. And with the memory preserved, the client moves on to the next place, where they spend the rest of whatever with their one memory. What’s the next place? I suppose that depends on the memory they choose.
There’s something wonderfully fresh about After Life, Japanese maestro Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 1998 meditation on memory and existence. It’s comforting, even radical, that Kore-eda refuses to depict the next life as anything but an extension of this one. Even the building the clerks operate in looks like a rural schoolhouse. The lighting is poor, suggesting it’s drafty in the winter, stale in the summer. The clerks live in sparsely furnished rooms. A couple of the old-timers play shogi. Two of the younger ones read books. He’s in the middle of a mystery novel. She’s working her way through the encyclopedia. “I have plenty of time,” she says.
These are the two clerks through which we enter the story: Arata (Takashi Mochizuki) and Erika (Shiori Satonaka). He’s 22; she’s 18. Or, those were their ages when they died. I wouldn’t want to give away their real ages because Kore-eda has a way of turning even banal information into tiny plot twists—a trademark of his, a primary reason for returning to his movies time and time again.
Reviewing the film in 1999, Roger Ebert called Kore-eda one of the great humanists of cinema, alongside Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman: “His films embrace the mystery of life and encourage us to think about why we are here and what makes us truly happy.”
All movies should make us think, but only a few do. Those are the ones we carry with us like the characters at the end of Fahrenheit 451—exiles who live in the woods and memorize a book so that its story will continue to exist long after the pages have been destroyed. After Life is one of those movies. To picture a world in which it does not exist feels hollow.
I suppose you could watch After Life and not think of the one memory you would choose. I suppose you could also remain uncheered by a balloon. If you’re going to do that, you might as well skip After Life. Here is a movie so profoundly gentle that you never stop to wonder if the people you see on screen lived good lives, only that they lived, and that alone puts us on common ground.
One memory—everything else is to be obliterated. Is one sufficient? I settled on five or six myself, but I think I know the one I would choose if push came to shove. Think of that: a movie of no more than 119 minutes that made me reflect on my entire life until I found something that brought me peace and joy. Any movie that can do that is surely worth seeing.