Failure to safeguard your best memories will not condemn you to hellfire and brimstone in "After Life", Kore-Eda Hirokazu's delicate and magical allegory about the final passage. Far from it. But it will commit you to being a bureaucrat, albeit a heavenly one, for eternity.
The crux of the highly original story, set at a kind of celestial way station housed in a dilapidated school building, is that within three days each of the 22 newly dead arrivals must select a personal memory to be recreated on film by the staff and screened to the group. All other memories will perish. Those who can't or won't choose stay behind as caseworkers.
"My original ambition was to be a novelist," said 36-year-old Kore-Eda, speaking through an interpreter at a recent interview in New York, where the film has been playing to sold-out crowds. His soft,low-keyed manner is thoroughly consonant with the compassion and decorous humor for which his film has been acclaimed.
Kore-Eda explained that the idea of the way station occurred to him ten years ago when he had just started working in television.
"I was sitting in an editing room transcribing some footage that we had shot that day," said Kore-Eda, "when I had an odd sensation: what if after you die you sat in front of a tv monitor watching endless images from your own life?"
Kore-Eda and his two sisters were born and raised on the rural outskirts of Tokyo, amid farms and fields. They drank well water and heated the bath with wood. When Kore-Eda was 6, his 73-year-old grandfather, who had been living with the family, died of Alzheimer's disease after becoming quite senile.
"I watched him ask my mother when lunch would be served not even one hour after he had just eaten lunch, or calling up the police to ask them to help him get home," said Kore-Eda. "And finally he died no longer recognizing me or himself in the mirror. So I have a very powerful memory of fear, thinking that people forget everything just before they die."
Kore-Eda's debut dramatic feature, "Mabarosi" (1995), about a woman coping with the loss of her husband to an unexplained suicide, won him instant international acclaim. But in spite of his literary leanings, Kore-Eda also has a solid documentary background, having spent 3 years as an assistant director for an independent Japanese television production company before making 8 of his own documentaries about fringe elements of Japanese society. And while "Mabarosi" was a "strictly fictional film in which every shot was storyboarded," "After Life" skilfully melds spontaneous and open-ended elements into the fiction film format.
"My goal this time was to record the wonderful things unfolding before me on location and on set," said Kore-Eda. "I wanted so-called real life to encounter the artifice of film. I was interested in the emotions that would arise from that collision."
Of the 500 people in different parts of Japan interviewed during the casting, the most memorable 13 were chosen to appear in the film telling their own stories, said Kore-Eda. One woman selects the memory of cherry blossom falling, a man the feel of a warm breeze in an open tram, a pilot the sensation of flying through clouds in a Cessna.
"I did not control what they said or give them lines to read; they told their own stories, in their own time and in their own words, and I recorded them on film," said Kore-Eda. "The remaining other half of the dead are played by actors, but even among them, only half of them speak dialogue that I gave them."
Not all the people at the way station - whether new arrivals or caseworkers - are elderly. In fact, the story is mostly told from the point of view of two 18-year-old caseworkers, Shiore (Erika Oda) and Mochizuki (Arata).
"Shiori meets Mochizuki, the other young man, who finally chooses a memory," said Kore-Eda, "Then they part. I wanted to give Shiori a clue to understanding that not everything precious about her resides simply in herself. When she sees, through the film he's left behind, that she herself is a precious part of someone else's life, she understands and values her own life differently and might be able to grow from there...
"It wasn't my intention to reflect particularly Japanese ideas about death in this film," Kore-Eda said, "but having travelled extensively abroad both with Mabaroshi and with this film, I think you can generalize that in Asia, life and death are closer than they are in the west. In Japan, the Day of the Dead is still an ongoing ritual. We believe that the dead return once a year and so we prepare them food, we even prepare them a conveyance to better enter this world for that one day. I'm certain that there's some part of me that believes that the dead can come and go."
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