On a Monday morning, a room full of the recently deceased await an interview with their assigned counsellors. The counsellors inform them that they have one week to decide what their happiest living memory was, allow a crew to recreate this memory on a film set, and then pass-on into the afterlife within that one memory they’ve chosen. The counsellors, particularly Takashi (Arata Iura) and the trainee Shiori (Erika Oda) help their assigned clients choose their memory, cycling through some of their happiest (and not-happiest) experiences that they want to live within forever. Koreeda gives gentle insights into a variety of people’s lives, using real people and their real memories to bring emotional authenticity to the broader ideas of After Life.
This film shares many attributes with Koreeda’s later film Shoplifters (2018) in its deep understanding of human emotion. Emotional events are allowed to be emotional instead of being projected by other elements, such as dramatic set-up or music. Character interactions become more fluid, more organic, and in turn more realistic; this engages the audience far more than a scene charged with intense violin music or complicated camera shots and techniques. The film is stripped bare, just the audience watching the characters, and this works particularly well when the characters talk about their living memories, drifting into an almost-daydream as the thoughts distract them. Koreeda even uses real people in these scenes, sharing their own memories and allowing them to describe them in their own natural way.
It’s not just the dead that have a platform to speak about their own sentiments in this film. The counsellors themselves, who live in the office-like building where they reside with their new weekly clientele, were once part of the living too. There is a small hint of a mostly one-sided romance between the young Shiori and Takashi, the latter of whom is wrapped up in the memory-picking of one of his assigned deceased. Ichiro Watanabe (Taketoshi Naitô) is an older gentleman who believes he has no happy memories to choose from. Takashi wants to reassign Ichiro to one of the other counsellors after personal feelings become involved. Their interactions occur over a large generational age-gap, and that really gives a gentle enforcement to the strongly-created idea of humanity that After Life achieves. Everyone is the same, is part of the same life, and experiences the same spectrum of emotions. It’s a lovely sentiment, and not pushed at all. Koreeda has a clear talent for providing a deep and detailed understanding of people that the audience can consume very easily, without losing anything in its thoroughness.
A small but significant part of this film that stuck with me is the idea of recreating memories on a film set. The deceased are told that the crew will try and make their memories as true-to-life as possible, with the counsellors showing them pictures regarding the objects, such as aeroplanes and benches, to get the most accurate one as possible. It’s almost funny to me that they don’t perfectly recreate the memory; that when the film crew is shown setting up and shooting the scene, the counsellors are all crowded around like nervous directors shooting their first short film. Although it’s never presented as a problem – the people whose memories are being recreated seem perfectly happy with the tools and techniques at hand, and they watch the end product on a VHS player fondly before disappearing into their final stage of death. I find it endearing, and most certainly comforting, that this limbo they appear in for a week is an understated building surrounded by a pleasant Autumnal garden, and the staff aren’t angels (and they have their own problems), and the memories are made to the best degree of a small film crew on a moderately-sized set. There’s comfort in imperfection because that’s what we’re used to, as humans, in life and now in death.
The conversion of memory–film in After Life could even be more of a deliberate and important choice by the director than what I picked up and favoured from it. I liked how imprecise the recreation of memories was, but this could be an indication of the actual imperfect way we remember things. We remember the feeling more than every aesthetic detail of the scene, and that’s the purest form of memory. It’s an impression that the film crew replicate, just as we have an impression of our own experiences which we never remember in their entirety. They’re recreating the memory rather than the event, making it almost a memory of a memory of an event – the same way we actually do remember things. This makes you think about the process of filmmaking itself, how the film is a recreation of an idea, similar to a memory, and how it will never be a ‘perfect’ replication of what’s visualised in the director’s head. They use the set and the characters and the camera and techniques to convey their idea; just as the counsellors help their dead clients replicate the memory in their head. It’s not visually as ‘perfect’ as the original experience, but the important thing is that its core feeling is there.
After Life hit the same way Shoplifters did, but somehow in a way that resonated with me even more. You start thinking about your own memories, and the comfortable satisfaction you get at the end of the film is melancholic but welcomed, almost needed. I’m unsure as to whether or not the shooting of the memories was a self-aware nod to this film becoming a memory in itself, but it did clarify my own awareness of my own past. After Life is thought-provoking in its sincere approach to human life, and I appreciate that.