Criterion Review: AFTER LIFE (1998)

Kore-eda’s early work is a meditation on life and our selective memory

Before Shoplifters, before Our Little Sister, before Still Walking, Hirokazu Kore-eda made an earlier quiet and thought-provoking movie in 1998, After Life (the original Japanese title translates to Wonderful Life). At a way station between life and death, a small team of filmmakers listen to the newly deceased talk about their favorite memories, then dream up a low-budget method to put such memories to film within a week’s deadline. A large percentage of the film is shot in an old national fisheries laboratory building, which adds layers to the bureaucratic set-up. Non-actors and actors perform in scenes together; Kore-eda’s team interviewed about 500 people in pre-production and selected 11 of them, mostly elderly folks, to play visitors to this short term of purgatory.

Young counselors Takashi (Arata Iura in his first film role) and Shiori (Erika Oda) have spent decades in this place helping people choose one special memory to stay in for eternity; we find out as this week progresses that they remain here because they were unable to decide on a memory for themselves. As Takashi tries to assist seventy-something Mr. Watanabe (Taketoshi Naitô), he comes to realize something about his own past. This plotline is woven into interviews and later the staging of memories.

Kore-eda’s second film takes its time to let matters unfold. There’s no rush to the storytelling — either the director’s or the dead characters flipping through memories of a long life, trying to find the best one. The handheld shooting style, grim institutional setting and natural lighting in After Life creates a feel different from the polish of his more recent films, but the work doesn’t exactly play as an outlier in his oeuvre. With its limited faults, After Life is a fantastical film that still dwells in the wonder of the everyday.

Special features included in the Criterion BluRay release include:

  • a restored digital print approved by Kore-eda
  • a beautiful essay by author Viet Thanh Nguyen about After Life and recalling memory
  • an interview with writer/director Kore-eda about his memories of making After Life. He shares how his experience in TV impacted his directing choices and how working with DP Yukata Yamazaki changed his filmmaking process. It’s also funny to hear Kore-eda talk about how Yamazaki kept shooting behind-the-scenes as the reenactment scenes were filmed, despite the director telling him he didn’t need to.
  • In a separate interview, director of photography Yukata Yamazaki reflects on his start in TV documentaries, how he got to know Kore-eda, and how the director helped create a low-pressure set to make non-actors comfortable. He tells his version of events regarding the behind-the-scenes footage. The choice to shoot on Super 16 was made because of fears of going overbudget if 35mm was used.
  • Second cinematographer Masayoshi Sukita looks back on his life and career in art. The photographer talks about how Kore-eda’s documentary experience influenced his work in After Life. As far as appearing in the film and shooting the memory sequences (most of which didn’t make it into the final work), Sukita comments, “I had a ball.”

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