It is a drab, slightly shabby building with floorboards that creak and fuses that blow. The people who work within are drab and slightly shabby as well; with their stiff camaraderie, cheap suits and manila folders bulging with paperwork, they resemble office workers from almost any nation on earth. But they are not on earth, and theirs is not just any office.
They are caseworkers in a kind of purgatory, where the recently deceased are allowed to pick one of their most treasured memories to take with them to eternity. Once the memory is chosen, the caseworkers set to work re-creating it, employing technology that seems more like the kind of stuff you'd find at a cheapie movie studio than in God's own prop department. Wads of cotton stand in for clouds, fans create the wind, and cassettes provide the soundtrack. Budget considerations are not specifically mentioned, but these people are clearly working with limited means. It's fulfilling work, but that's just what it is: work.
If there is a preciousness to the premise of Kore-eda Hirokazu's 1998 film After Life, I can assure you there is little precious about the finished product. This is easily the most-down-to-earth film about eternity ever made. While it has some things in common with films like Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life and Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, it doesn't feel anything like those other films. It's sometimes funny, and it's artfully done, but it's neither a comedy nor a pretentious art picture. Alternating between carefully composed and wobbly, cinema vrit shots, After Life has the feel of a documentary but the form of well-crafted fiction.
After Life's style comes naturally to Hirokazu, a filmmaker who directed several award-winning documentaries before turning to fiction with 1995's Maborosi. While gifted documentary directors often stumble when they try fiction (the unlucky few who experienced Michael Moore's Canadian Bacon are still trying to get the taste out of their mouths), Hirokazu has proved himself adept at both forms. Perhaps the most compelling sections of After Life are the ones that don't feel like fiction at all, as the lively dead folk are interviewed regarding their happiest moments. For many, it's something mundane: a ride on Splash Mountain with friends, a childhood train ride home, a flight through the clouds in a Cessna airplane. Watching the film, we can't help but think of what our own happiest moment would be, and some of us may be tempted to agree with the smutty old man who says, "Whatever else they tell you, for a man, it's when you're doing it! That's the best!"
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But while the dead are allowed to relive their favorite moment in perpetuity, they are only allowed to hold on to that one moment, forgetting everything else. In many ways, it's a terrifying concept, and it's one that many of the dead understandably have a problem with. For the caseworkers, these people can be a real pain. And then there are the oddball cases: one sad businessman has lived a life of such pain that he doesn't want to remember anything; an adorable old lady is so senile that she can't remember anything; one young punk simply refuses to choose as a matter of principle. And then there is poor Mr. Watanabe (Naito Taketoshi), who feels his life simply
didn't offer up enough memorable moments.
Watanabe's quiet, pained-looking young caseworker, Mochizuki, is in many ways the film's central character. He seems the most conventionally angelic of the caseworkers, but he has problems of his own. He also shares something with Watanabe he can't bring himself to face, and the way that something plays out is the crowning glory of this quietly glorious film.
Amy Heckerling (Clueless) is apparently working on an American remake, a prospect that fills me with dread. After Life spins some crafty, weirdly plausible answers to some of existence's largest questions while artfully dodging others, and one of the picture's most delightful qualities is the way it conjures the eternal out of little but an attic's worth of props. It makes an honest virtue out of its poverty. An American film would have the resources to send the sun twirling across the sky, and it would be all the poorer for it. The small miracles of After Life would hardly be improved by a What Dreams May Come budget.
The sluggish pacing of certain Japanese films can be painful for Western audiences (anybody who saw the critical fave The Mystery of Rampo knows exactly what I mean), but while After Life is hardly overplotted, it's never dull. The film is suffused with Japanese culture, but its characters and concepts feel universal. After all, sooner or later we'll all be making that trip to the drab, slightly shabby building in the sky.