Let’s imagine that you’re dead. Sounds nice, right? You’re dead then. But not consigned to oblivion. Instead of the pearly gates or the shifting bridge or wherever, you find yourself in a large, old brick institutional building, the kind that they liked to make in the early 20th century. You are one of many souls there, all newly dead, all a bit confused by the experience. A helpful person sits down with you in an office and tells you that you will be billeted in this building for one week. In this time you must choose one memory from your life to take with you into the next world, whatever that may be. The staff of the institution will create a film of that memory for you.
This is the premise behind Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life (1998). It’s the kind of high-concept device that Hollywood slavers after and chews up in its boardroom jaws, generally digesting it in a corrosive bath of sentimentality. If you watch the English language trailer below, this is pretty much what the distributor is trying to do.
There’s definitely a precious streak that runs through the movie, but the charm of the film lies in Kore-eda’s attention to physical detail. The office building is semi-abandoned and in need of a good coat of paint, the staff make tea on hot plates and wear heavy sweaters to compensate for the malfunctioning boilers. This is a low-rent afterlife.
In fact, the lack of special effects extends to the films that the staff make of people’s memories; given a short timeline and a prop supply limited to scraps and junk, the ‘filmed memories’ look like the whimsical creations of children. One woman has a memory of falling cherry blossoms, so it ends up being someone’s job to stand on a ladder and gently shake (fake) blossoms onto the scene below.
And that’s where the real story lies: in the afterlives of the staff, the ones who shake the blossoms and bury themselves in the strange routine of interviews, facilitation, and re-creation. Hirokazu is probably commenting on the work of the artist - someone who partipates in the miraculous and mundane in the same breath: whose fake productions are ultimately more memorable and valuable than the reality it rearranges.