Afterlife, the new feature by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-Eda (Maborosi, Without Memory) is set in a kind of halfway house between life on Earth and the mystery of eternity. The film presents a challenge to each character, as well as to all of us in the audience: If you could choose only one memory, and that memory alone would remain with you forever while every other memory were erased – which would you choose?
In this languorously paced, beautifully realized film, we have close to two hours to make up our minds. The characters on screen have three days. It is easier for some than for others, some must receive extra help from the staff, and there are a few who cannot or will not make up their minds. A special fate awaits them, and with two of these non-choosers our story takes a soft left turn in the middle.
Along the way Kore-Eda makes many wry comments about modern Japanese life (most teenage girls choose Splash Mountain at Disneyland as their favorite memory – and most older men, when being interviewed by a female staff person, choose a lurid sexual adventure). There is an equal amount of philosophy about the passage of time itself. Old man Watanabe (Naito Taketoshi), for example, cannot remember anything interesting ever happening to him, so he is asked to view 71 videos, each comprising one year of his life, to prod his memory. We see the stern and reserved Watanabe in all stages of his life and we come to understand how he could feel the way he feels at the end.
The halfway house is set in what looks like a small, rural school complex in Northern Japan. It is winter, snowy and stark. The light is diffuse. You can’t see out of windows, and only rarely glimpse a view of nature – snow falling, leaves on the ground. The result is an inward focus emulating the interior voyage undertaken by each character.
Newcomer Arata plays the lead character, Mochizuki, and gives an arresting performance. He is the object of affection of Shiori (Erika Oda), and it is her intervention which allows Mochizuki finally to make his own serious choice. Their attraction for one another, even here after death, gives more food for thought. Does love endure forever, if only in memory? Can one imagine having to survive with only one memory, no matter how strong? How can anyone synthesize an entire life’s range of experiences into a single moment? To make that decision, what criteria would you use?
Kore-Eda credits his memory of his grandfather’s death after a long bout with Alzheimer’s Disease as the inspiration for the film. "I remember thinking that people forgot everything when they died. I now understand how critical memories are to our identity, to a sense of self."
Afterlife is long and some will find it difficult. But those who stick with it will come away both entertained and challenged – a wonderful and rare combination.