(Japan 1998 119m) DVD1/2
Aka. Wandafuru Raifu
Memories are made of this
p Shiho Sato, Masayuki Akieda d/w Hirokazu Kore-Eda ph Yamazaki Hiroshi ed Hirokazu Kore-Eda m Yasuhiro Kasamutsu art Toshihiro Isomi, Hideo Gunji
Arata (Takashi Mochizuki), Erika Oda (Shiori Satonaka), Susumu Terajima (Satoru Kawashima), Tsuyoshi Naito (Takuro Sugie), Kyoko Kagawa (Kyoko Watanabe), Kei Tani (Kennosuke Nakamura), Sadao Abe (Ichiro as young man), Taketoshi Naito (Ichiro Watanabe), Tori Yuri (Shoda), Yusuke Iseya (Iseya), Hisako Hara (Kiyo Nishimura), Sayaka Yoshino (Kana Yoshino),
It’s one of my unavoidable characteristics when I come to watch a film for the first time, that I uncover essences in it that remind me of other films. Yet with Kore-Eda’s late nineties classic, After Life, it’s difficult to bring to mind any other film. The only one that does come to mind is the Ealing drama The Halfway House, made in 1943 prior to release the following year. And that in itself is a joyous coincidence as the year 1943 is pivotal to some of the crucial events of Kore-Eda’s film.
The film is set in a sort of halfway house/way station where the recently deceased come to spend a week before moving into their own idea of eternity – literally their own idea, in that the purpose of the week is to give them time to choose one memory out of their lives in which to spend the rest of time. It is down to the boss, Nakamura, his two counsellors Mochizuki and Kawashima, and assistant Shiori to let the current crop of departed – twenty-two in total – choose their way of spending their afterlife.
The aforementioned Ealing film was actually about a sort of mirage, a sort of Brigadoon where time stood still after an inn was bombed during a bombing raid. Kore-Eda’s film isn’t half so contrived, relying so much as it does on several talking heads monologues, niftily edited one twixt the other, and the off-screen questions of the counsellors. After a while, of course, one becomes aware that the counsellors weren’t chosen, but on the contrary were left behind because they couldn’t choose a memory of their own. The building itself is rather like a deserted factory office building, with a courtyard, and similarly drab outhouses where other functions are performed. There’s a symbolically autumnal, even wintry feel to proceedings, as befits what turns out to be a crucial week in the lives of those deceased who have chosen to stay behind. The new intake are a mixed bunch – a teenage girl who dreams of Disneyland, an elderly woman who recalls an affair, a young man who chooses not to choose, an elderly roué who discusses his innumerable conquests as camouflage for his desire to choose his daughter’s wedding, and a seventy year old gentleman whose arrival results in an epiphany for one of the workers. In turns out that the gentleman’s wife, who died five years previously (played with due nods to the legacy of Kurosawa and Mizoguchi by Kyoko Kagawa), was once affianced to counsellor Mochizuki prior to the latter’s death in the war. Since that day sixty-five years previously he had been unable to choose a memory to move on to. That he does now move on, to be replaced by the young man who has chosen to stay from the current crop, is of great loss to trainee counsellor Shiori, who has obviously fallen in love with him in her year’s stay at the halfway house.
Few films have so exquisitely handled the value of our most cherished memories, and not since Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death have we been presented with such a tranquil vision of the afterlife. His script is full of beautiful recollections and the visuals, all shot in the handheld camera so beloved by the likes of Von Trier and Miike, are often exquisitely simple (none more so than the misty entrance into which the newly deceased check in). There’s a wonderful irony in the fact that, in asking questions of the deceased, the counsellors find as much out about themselves. And there is an overall feeling of regret that is palpable. It may not be a perfect film, but it is a wholly original one, beautifully acted by all and made by a film-maker with a serious future.