Hirokazu’s 1998 masterpiece After Life presents us with a heaven that occupies an old building (it looks like an abandoned school) with no heat and dire need of a coat of paint. The premise is: The recently deceased stop off here, and indicate the memory that they would like to live with for the rest of eternity. The staff re-creates the memory on film, and then the people go off to Heaven, taking that memory with them, and forgetting everything else.
For a film that tackles such a subject, After Life is surprisingly sweet and quiet. The film’s foundation is in the faces of the men and women who go through this station over the course of one week. The rules are explained in a montage that introduces us to all of the major characters. The deceased have 3 days to choose the one memory that they want to preserve, after which the staff will film it. Every one will meet on the last day to view their film, after which they go off to Heaven.
The dead come in all types, male and female, young and old, and the stories are just as varied as the faces that tell them. An elderly woman recalls dancing in a red dress for her older brother. A WWII survivor speaks of being captured by American troops and being given a cigarette and meal by them. A middle-aged man talks of riding on a bus on a beautiful summer day as a child. A young girl recalls a trip to Disneyland. A man boasts of his sexual conquests. An elderly lady says nothing, just looking off into the distance. The interviews are stark and simplistic – We almost never hear the interviewer speak, and the camera doesn’t leave the subject. It’s remarkably effective in creating an intimacy with the dead.
Hirokazu interviewed over 500 people in preparation for this film, and many of these sessions are included in the film. I couldn’t tell you which are real people and which are actors, and it doesn’t matter anyway. All the “dead” seen onscreen are remarkably natural, and the film doesn’t have a phony note in it.
A couple of the faces stand out. A young man named Iseya says that he won’t choose one memory. An elderly man named Watanabe has problems choosing. His life and marriage were a disappointment to him, leaving no great memories. His counselor, a young man named Mochizuki, tries to help him by providing a video record of his life, and watching the old man see his own memories is fascinating. He sees himself as an idealistic young man, decrying the very life that he would eventually wind up living. He sees himself bumbling in his first contact with the woman would later become his wife, and mutters at the screen “Idiot!”
The counselors, it turns out, are also among the dead. They are people who couldn’t or wouldn’t decide, and thus are held back. Little bits are uncovered about them. One of the men shows a picture of his daughter, saying, “She would be 6 now.” Mochizuki has been dead for decades, but suddenly realizes that he has a link with the old man Watanabe. I won’t reveal the link, but suffice to say that it is a watershed moment for both men. The film stays true to itself in these passages, not degenerating into false sentimentality and fluff.
A counselor named Shoeri is an enigma. She won’t pick a memory, and we’re not sure why. She speaks at one point about remembering riding on her father’s back, and at one point makes a vague statement about missing her father, but the film doesn’t pursue it. It’s her story that ultimately shows another viewpoint on the “One memory for all eternity” idea. She loves Mochizuki, and to choose one memory means that she has to give up all the others. That’s why she won’t choose.
After all the interviews, and glimpses of the counselors starting to produce the memories in a studio, we never get the chance to see the finished product. The film shows them trooping into the theatre and finding a seat, and this is as much as we see. We’ve sat with each of these people and heard their stories, and so to see the actual film would have been superfluous.
The question of what is heaven really like is of course impossible to answer. All we can do is construct one that seems right to us. The makers of After Life have succeeded, because it’s impossible to watch it and not turn its ideas inward on oneself. I think of my wife and I on the first evening of our honeymoon, sitting together in a nearly empty dining room in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains, watching white-tailed deer frolic outside…. I think of warm summer days, swimming with my brother and my cousins as a child..…Could I spend eternity with these? You bet.
Note: My January 2007 commentary on Hirokazu’s Maborosi can be read here.