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After Life (1999)

"Before viewing" talks introduce the film without spoilers. Watch it, then click on the "After viewing" talk for more. More»» by Randy Heffner

Imaginative, compassionate, and perceptive, Kore-eda Hirokazu’s After Life creates a crucible of sorts to distill a person’s life down to its essence — or at least its essence as seen

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"After viewing" talks assume that you have seen the film. They will contain spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

Kore-eda’s intimate observation and deliberate pacing in After Life draw me beyond its central notion (choosing a single memory) and into a longing to be more often fully present in all the moments in my life. I want to be more fully alive and aware so I might see and live the significance of each moment and each memory. Small moments…big moments… mundane moments…momentous moments…watching After Life, I’m left with a greater sense of the wonder in it all. More to the point, the film makes me want to be more deliberate about how I find significance, grounding it in a sense of community and camaraderie with the people in my life, both the momentary relationships and the lasting ones. This kind of significance, I find, is not well-described by the word “happiness” but is rather more centered in words like “weight,” “value,” “seeing,” and “connection.”

Remember one of those times when you were sitting around, enjoying time with friends, and someone posed a “what if” question? What if you could have dinner with three famous people? What if you could live anywhere in the world? What if you could deliver a message, knowing that everyone in your country would hear it? It may seem artificial, perhaps even unfair, for After Life to force the issue of choosing only one moment’s memory yet, if we go with it, allowing the film to ask its “what if” question, we may see something new about ourselves.

The first moments of After Life are unique and intriguing, and they move quickly enough that it seems like a regular movie. But then, as we move to the conference rooms, Kore-eda shifts into slower-paced observation, and the whole wide range of characters begins to bloom — albeit at a pace that may, to some, seem a bit like watching a flower's bud, waiting for the flower. Yet this slower pacing is integral to the film's encouraging us to pursue and grasp the lasting significance of each ephemeral moment.

How do we embrace the visitors? Are they simply random people with insignificant, often painful, stories that we can't (or don't want to) relate to? Are we too far removed from their problems and struggles to lean into their pain, feel compassion, and grasp some kind of meaning from their lives? Are they brothers and sisters, a reflection of our humanity and the humanity of those around us? Are we just waiting for them to get to the point? Are we in the room with them, so to speak, listening intently as we might if we had just met them in person at the local coffee shop? The answers depend on the center of our attention.

The visitors and the workers

Kore-eda's rich panoply of characters is a gift of treasured humans we are privileged to meet. The visitors' memories are diverse enough to make a good chance that most of us can find some memory to relate to, a few that are beyond our experience, and perhaps a visitor or two we might despise. Each of these three categories, indeed in each of the visitors, is an angle from which After Life can do its work in us. Each one speaks something individual and specific about human value, and it's worth a moment to remember each of them:

  • Nishimura Kiyo, the old lady who loves flowers and nature: Nishimura is so very much into finding beauty in each moment and drinking it in fully that it seems she is not to be bothered by such tasks as choosing a memory. Kawashima is frustrated by this, until he realizes that she has lived her whole life this way. She is like a nine-year-old in her fascination with continually rediscovering the world.
  • Yoshino Kana, the teenage girl: In shifting from her Disneyland memory to the memory of her mother's lap, Yoshino makes a shift to a far deeper and more abiding place of meaning and substance. It's not the the Disneyland memory didn't have significance, it did — particularly the bit about her friends' sharing a treat with her when she didn't have enough money — it's that fun times don't carry the long-term emotional weight that moments of deep caring do.
  • The pilot: The pilot's memory suggests that some details matter more than others as we remember. He remembers many details, yet he emphasizes that it "makes all the difference" that the wings are set high on the plane.
  • The man who remembers riding the tram as a child: His memory is rich with detail in sounds, in sights, in sweat, in the feeling of the breeze through the tram windows. As with the pilot, certain details stand out while others, such as whether the tram operator would have had his hat on or not, we have to think about and reason through as to how it must have been.
  • The old lady who meets her returning fiance on a bridge: The theme of remembered detail recurs again here, when the moment on the bridge, for her, becomes only the two of them. Another notable aspect of her memory is that we see her worker, Sugie, writing in his notebook that their meeting on the bridge occurred "by chance."
  • Shoda Gisuke, the old man who talks about sex: Shoda seems unabashed as he describes his exploits and bargain-hunting at the brothel. On he goes, until he strikes upon a memory of one woman that cared well for him when he was ill. We learn at the film's end that he had gone on to choose a memory from his daughter's wedding. Like Yoshino, he shifts from momentary pleasure to lasting emotional connection.
  • Amano Nobuko, the woman who tells of her affair with a married man: Amano's remembrances, being the converse of Shoda's, bring out a different side of pleasure versus emotional connection. For her, as a prostitute, sex is seemingly only work; she mentions no pleasure about it. But one client stands out as different. He treats her with care and dignity and respect, and she is strongly drawn to him emotionally. When she learns he is married, she is crushed. Though she doesn't say specifically why, she does mention that he never said that he loved her, so it may be that she realized then that his kindness to her could not last.
  • Bundo Taro, whose memory was as a baby: Whatever the reality may be about childhood memory (e.g., see what Wikipedia has to say), it's fascinating to think back as to the earliest we might remember. In After Life, the workers' discussion around Bundo's memory takes on a greater significance: Hearing the boss suggest that one can bring back a memory of the sense of security of the mother's womb by immersing in water, and that it can help with anxiety, Shiori tries to take herself back to that comfort in her bathwater.
  • Yamamoto Kenji, the man for whom forgetting is heaven: We often think of and refer to childhood as a golden time. Bundo's memory seems to be that way, with sunlight illuminating the futon where he was laying. Hearing Yamamoto's pain, though, is a stark reminder that some children have no such golden time. He chooses a memory in a closet that is completely dark, as if to block out as much of his tragic life as he can.
  • The woman who remembers giving birth: Simultaneously, we experience in this woman's remembrances the phenomenal value of a human life, the way that pain can pale in comparison to great value that comes through the pain, and the simple value in some kinds of forgetting. For her, forgetting the pain of childbirth is a bit of heaven, but in a positive way where the pain is much more than overcome by the value of the child.
  • Tatara Kimiko, the dancer: The old woman's deep love for both dancing and her brother are palpable as she remembers. Yet more than that, the profound reverence with which she speaks, almost whispering at times, lends an air of the magical and legendary to these moments and memories. She is realizing that, whether she knew it or not at the time, she lived many wondrous gifts that seem to come together in this memory: her brother, her dresses, her dancing, the people, the desserts, the music, the songs.
  • The prisoner of war: As he recalls his progression of successes with his American captors, the prisoner reminds us of the possibility of universal human connection and the incredible beauty there is when compassion flows across enemy lines.
  • The woman who lived through the earthquake: Amidst the bamboo swings and rice balls, we see the strength of community in two realms. First, community amongst refugees from harm and its ability to heal fear and loss. Second, she describes how, for her generation, the children valued highly the time of closeness with their parents. She sees something lost in the growing isolation between the younger generation's children and parents.
  • The man who was going to kill himself: The blue moonlight shining off the railroad tracks seems to take on a legendary life of its own in his memory. Called back to life by visions of his mother and his girlfriend, his memory testifies to how relationships are the true substance of life, not the circumstances that might overwhelm us and drive us to hopelessness.
  • Iseya Yusuke, who refuses to choose: Iseya's refusal raises curious questions about the whole program at the waystation: Is it a cop-out to choose one memory? Is it a failure to take responsibility for all of one's life? Or, on the other hand, is whether one takes responsibility indicated more by which particular memory you choose? Do you choose an uncharacteristic, isolated moment when you accidentally got something right? Do you choose a dream memory or a future vision, a wish of how things might have been or could be? Do you choose a moment where the shredded strands of your life come together with mixed emotions that more fully embody the reality of your life with the good and the bad, the foolishness and the wisdom that you lived?
  • Watanabe Ichiro, who watches the videotapes of his life: The questions Iseya raises are answered, in large measure, by Watanabe's eventual choice, and it is significant that he makes this choice only after he and Iseya talk on the grounds of the waystation. More on this in a minute.

The workers, too, each embody aspects of our human struggle for meaning and connection:

  • Mochizuki Takashi, who finally chooses: For much of the film, we get to know Mochizuki as a kind counselor, but as Watanabe's story unfolds and Kyoko enters, we learn of his deep disquiet and of the extended years that he has been a counselor, unable to choose. Although it is clear that he is touchy in the face of his memory of Kyoko, it's not clear whether her memory hurts him because he misses her, or because he feels that, like Watanabe, he didn't appreciate her, or something else. Whatever it is, his realization that he was part of her happiness is the catalyst for resolving his pain, which implies that his disquiet extends back to before his goodbye moment with Kyoko. This is reinforced by the physical distance, and the seeming emotional distance, between he and Kyoko in their park bench moment. Realizing his part in her happiness triggers in him a further realization: That through their work at the waystation, he and the others have had the privilege of helping many people sort through their lives, and thus they have become part of many visitors' eternal happiness.
  • Satonaka Shiori, Mochizuki's assistant: Gradually, we learn pieces of Shiori's story. She can't remember her mother (she tells this to Yoshino), her father died when she was young (she tells Kawashima that her father raised her the same way Kawashima raised his daughter), she is drawn to Mochizuki and is upset when she sees that he is going to choose. At the end, she says directly the central focus of her pain: She can't bear to be forgotten by anyone else.
  • Kawashima Satoru, who remembers his young daughter: Driven by his sense of responsibility to his daughter, Kawashima decided not to choose, so that he could remain at the waystation, thinking he could look after her in a way. Though he feels ill-suited to the waystation's work, he believes that seeing her on the Japanese Day of the Dead is his responsibility until she comes of age.
  • Sugie Takuro, who likes tea: Although we see less of Sugie than we do of the other counselors, his taste for English tea, his silver tea set, the red display cabinet in his room (one of the few bright colors in the film), and his joking with Amano give us a sense of his passion for life. We don't know why he has not chosen.
  • The boss: Although he does not play a large role in the film, the boss is a significant leadership presence.
  • The security guard: The moons maintained by the security guard, combined with the boss's observation to Shiori about them, embody an important commentary on seeing events and people in differing lights.

Heaven and hell

On its surface, After Life is ambiguous about the question of heaven and hell. When we first meet the visitors, we hear them being told, "As soon as you've relived your memory, you will move on, taking only that memory with you." There's no mention of where they will move on to. In the scene where Iseya asks whether everyone winds up at the waystation, Kawashima affirms, "That's right." But when Iseya asks more specifically, "...all that stuff about going to hell if you're bad...Not true? Everyone's here?" Kawashima's response is ambiguous. Because Iseya repeated his "Everyone's here?" question, Kawashima could be simply be repeating his previous "That's right" answer — he doesn't specifically address the part about heaven or hell.

Then, at the end, during the closing ceremony, the boss says, "The moment you relive your memory, you'll move on to a place where you can be sure of spending eternity with that memory." — and then gives them a smile and a firm nod of finality. It's an ambiguous, enigmatic statement, but the wording seems to be chosen carefully, especially when we consider that many people want to be sure of whether heaven and hell are real, and this would have been an ideal moment for the boss to reassure them. Were everyone moving on to a heavenly place, the boss might have said, "...a place where you can look forward to spending eternity..." He gives them no such assurance, but rather he says they should "...be sure..." that, wherever they're moving on to, it's a place of their own choosing.

Iseya's proposition; Watanabe's redemption

Iseya's proposition (that not choosing is a way of taking responsibility for one's life) serves as an astute counter to the film's surface question (which memory would you choose). By infusing into it the notion that the choice entails more than personal preference, it shifts the focus of the film's "what if" question from pleasure and happiness to meaning and significance. It raises the importance of asking not merely which memory you would choose, but why? For Watanabe, this shift enables him to come to terms with his life, choose a memory, and find his redemption.

Since his youth, Watanabe had framed his life around his drive to leave evidence, his desire to make an impact on the world. He stuck with this desire, even when his young friends ridiculed him for it. In his youth, he explicitly rejects the notion of working all one's life at one company, which turned out to be exactly how he lived his life. At the waystation, he interprets the choice to mean he should choose "something that was fun or made [him] happy" and he claims that "of course I had many" such moments. But then as he examines his life, he frets that he sees nothing of significance to match the evidence he had hoped to leave. Mochizuki suggests the possibility of choosing a vacation with his wife and Watanabe replies, "Do I have to choose that sort of thing?"

Any memory he might choose reminds him of his failure to leave "evidence," and living eternally with any memory less than that would be hell for Watanabe. Gradually, watching his videotapes, he begins to see that his drive to leave evidence caused him to miss the significance of being simply honest and present in the wonder of his relationship with Kyoko. He had lied about his interest in movies, maybe trying somehow to seem worthy to Kyoko. He was wrapped up in his newspaper, perhaps trying to understand the world, missing Kyoko's presence at the table. He comes to understand that his "so so" marriage was his own creation, and it is but another reminder of his disappointment in the life he had lived and the private hell it may become for eternity.

Thus it comes to filming day and Watanabe has found nothing to choose. He is still thinking that his chosen memory should be evidence of his success — the heaven he wants to take to eternity. Then, sitting on the bench outside the waystation, he hears Iseya's proposition and it infuses the notion of responsibility into Watanabe's deliberations. Iseya laughs at everyone trying to put on their best face, blowing the electrical fuses with their vain attempts to hide their weak sides. Watanabe begins to realize that, like his drying and combing what little hair he has left, his search for "evidence" is a failure to acknowledge that his life's focus on making a grand impact left his life bald, devoid of the grandness of life and beauty that was right there all along.

Going back to his tapes, Watanabe looks with new eyes for a different kind of significance. Even if there were some moment of heaven he could choose, it would be a lie to choose it. He comes upon his park bench moment with Kyoko, where she chides him for his lying about the movies and he agrees to start going to the movies. He sees that this moment — including the fact that it was too little, too late (and that was wrong when he had said, "We certainly have plenty of time") — embodies much of both what his life actually was and what it could and should have been.

Choosing this moment, Watanabe takes responsibility in a profound way. Even in its brokenness, his life becomes a testimony — evidence — to the primacy of relationships and of finding meaning in each ephemeral moment. Grasping this truth, even at the end, he may not achieve pure heaven, but at least he escapes his private hell.

Memory versus videotape reality

Watanabe's videotapes raise another, more subtle, question: Since these life videos are available for everyone, why go to all the trouble to recreate their memories on film? Why not simply excerpt each visitor's memory from the videotapes? The first clue comes as Mochizuki sits Watanabe down with the tapes. He explains that the tapes will not match Watanabe's memory exactly, "so please just use them for reference." He doesn't explain why, nor does he directly suggest which is the more accurate. Yet often enough throughout the film, we see how memory is faulty and incomplete — for example, as we watch the dancer's memory, the tram ride memory, and others.

So, why not prefer to straighten out someone's memory, to ensure that they get it right? It's not so simple: One moment's videotape reality, on its own, doesn't tell the whole story. Watching the park bench video, Watanabe sees himself remembering incorrectly. Kyoko corrects him: He really did say that he liked movies. He knows she is right only because he saw the videotape of their young dinner night out. It is only in context of the whole story that the park bench moment gains its true significance. On its own, reality isn't always quite so real.

Videotape reality captures only external events. Although something external may give a clue to something internal — a glance perhaps indicates a thought, a frown may indicate discomfort — it's dicey to think that we can know what's internal based only on the external. A memory's significance is inextricably tied to what's happening inside us at the moment. The waystation's recreations of memory, drawn as they are around the significance the visitors place on the memories, become more real and important than videotape reality. This is true even if a visitor distorts a memory, because the distortion, mixed up as it is with the longings of the visitor's heart, brings focus to what the visitor's life was about. And what their life was about will be the private heaven or hell that they carry with them to eternity.

We focus on what we value — OR — The value of shoddy work versus perfection

But wait a minute…Cotton for clouds? Strangers standing in for beloved brothers? Painted blue skies on the inside of a warehouse? What kind of low-fidelity production quality are the workers doing as they recreate these memories? Really now…the visitors are going to live an eternity with only these shoddy recreations to remember? What kind of eternity with that be? It depends. It's another case of living in our own private heaven or hell.

Suppose your friends, who happen to have a business restoring old cars, give you plane tickets and hotel nights for an all-expenses-paid vacation to your favorite place in the world. But, they send you all the information for it sealed up in a greasy, dirty, grimy envelope that appears to have been through the ringer of oil and grit at their auto repair garage. What are you going to spend time talking about: the vacation gift or the dirty envelope? By continually complaining about how it all started with your friends' lack of consideration and respect with the dirty envelope, you could turn a heavenly vacation into a private hell.

So it is with the workers' "shoddy" recreations: Will you center your attention on what matters, on the point of it all, or on the package it came in? Kore-eda gives us material to help us understand this. For the pilot, there's something significant about the wings being set high on the plane. It gives the experience a quality of being suspended from heaven; it has an ethereal connection with the significance of the memory. Other details don't matter so much to the pilot — they don't need to be realistic, they just need to be enough to trigger his ability to relive the emotions and meaning of the moment. Cotton clouds are fine because the memory's value is in what the cotton represents.

Take the question one further: Would higher fidelity recreation make the visitors have happier eternal lives? Certainly fidelity matters — there had to be some type of clouds for the pilot — but what about after a baseline of fidelity is there. For those who focus on the memory, eternity will be a heaven of deepening significance as they realize more and more how much of life is wrapped up in that moment and each moment. For those who focus on the production quality, it would be hard to recreate with enough fidelity to rise above the nit-picking, and their eternity would in any case be an increasing hell of nit-picking and fussing.


If any of the visitors is a type for us to follow, it's Nishimura. While all the other visitors are choosing or fretting about choosing, she simply continues her life at the waystation precisely as she lived life before her death. It's one continuous thing for her. Death is no big event; it's no cause for Watanabe-esque alarm about the meaning of life. Her simple, childlike appreciation of each moment and each beautiful creation is the meaning of life. It confounds Kawashima that she doesn't see the need to choose, and then he realizes that she "...already chose her memories while she was still alive." Sugie ponders, "I wonder how we look, how the world looks, to someone like her."

Her gift to Kawashima — a bag of cherry blossom petals — speaks volumes. Cherry blossoms are a notable symbol of the Japanese notion of "mono no aware" (moh-noh-noh-ah-wah-ray): sensitivity to and awareness of ephemeral beauty and wonder. Nishimura lived her life and set her focus to take in all the fleeting wonder and beauty flowing by her. How indeed might the world look to us, how might other people look to us, if we lived with our attention continually focused on the truth and loveliness around us all the time?

Many of the key moments in the film involve Shiori: Although she is "only" a helper, her character is the key to much of the film's work.

  • The fog from which the visitors first enter the waystation — it emphasizes the unknown about who these people are and where they've come from.
  • The waystation itself and its setting — the fact that it is just a simple place, even a dingy and decaying place, echoes the film's themes about seeing past the surface to the significance of what is happening within.
  • As Watanabe is coming to understand his task at the waystation, he asks a question about making a choice. His phrasing is important: "You mean, I mean...something that was fun or made me happy?" — that Kore-eda has him start with "you mean" then switch to "I mean" shows how the workers are not directing what type of memory to choose, but rather it is up to each visitor. This is reinforced at the end of the film when Shiori uses the phrasing "most important memory."
  • Shiori is reading the World Encyclopedia. She explains, "Time I've got plenty of." — it's a fun little footnote to set a perspective on eternity.
  • At night, as Mochizuki and Kawashima are talking about their "difficult" visitors (Iseya, Watanabe, and Yamamoto), Kawashima asks, "What are they like?" Mochizuki says, "Just average." Kawashima says, "In the end, they're the worst, aren't they?" — It brings in the notion that, living in an "average" way, maybe we're not really engaging with life. It echoes a verse in the Bible's last book: "So, because you are lukewarm — neither hot nor cold — I am about to spit you out of my mouth." (Revelation 3:16)
  • While Yoshino is describing her Disneyland Splash Mountain memory, the camera turns to focus on Shiori: She is slowing fidgeting her fingers around her pen, looking up toward Yoshino with a flat look, and then she leans back and folds her arms — this wonderfully portends a sense of Shiori's impatience, and just after this we learn that, after seeing so many, particularly teenage girls, choose Disneyland memories with but surface meaning, she wants to move Yoshino to a memory of greater significance.
  • While Mochizuki and Shiori are walking to check on Watanabe, Shiori says, "I think he'll be doing this..." as she holds her hands to her head and groans, and that is precisely what he is doing — aside from the humor of the moment, it brings attention to Shiori's insight, cluing us to the importance of her character.
  • When Mochizuki sees Kyoko for the first time on Watanabe's videos, he is riveted to the screen, but in a subtle way that is easy to miss. But Shiori doesn't miss it: She gets a stern look that, at the time, we may wonder about — it again emphasizes Shiori's insight, especially later when she confronts Mochizuki by asking who Kyoko is.
  • Shiori's location scouting expedition, whereupon she wanders seemingly around the corner into the living world — it gives the sense that the waystation is within our reach, it's just around the corner, right next to us, living in our midst. It somehow brings the waystation out from the realm of myth, making it more real as if we might simply walk around the corner to find it.
  • In Shiori's expedition, she has no interactions of any kind with any living person: not a bump, not a word, not a glance — it reinforces our sense of the waystation as a real place in that Shiori operates as a sort of ghost among the living.
  • The elaborate clock as the centerpiece of Shiori's expedition — it represents the time of our lives ticking away.
  • After Shiori helps Mochizuki connect with Kyoko's memory through both the waystation's recreation of it and the videotape of it, we are taken to a moment between Shiori and Mochizuki where they sit in precisely the same way on the bench in the yard of the waystation — Mochizuki is at an identical point of departure in his life, and again he seems to not know how to embrace the moment emotionally.
  • Throughout the film, there are many moments of transition where Kore-eda pauses on a quiet scene outside the waystation or perhaps on artifacts inside it — the film keeps calling us back to slow down, observe, be aware and awake to the wonder around us.
  • A bit of backstory about the film: Some of the visitors are actors acting from a script, others are actors telling real stories from their lives, and some are real people telling their own stories. Kimiko, the dancer, is probably one of these, because she is listed in the credits by the same name. Bundo, who has the baby memory, is another listed this way.
  • The first time in the film that the camera is angled straight on to one of the workers at a conference room table is when Mochizuki tells Watanabe that he was unable to choose. Prior to that, only the visitors were ever directly centered in the camera's gaze — suddenly Mochizuki is put visually into the place of a visitor, mirroring what we are just then learning about him.
  • Just before the film closes, Kore-eda puts us into the empty seat in Shiori's room, making us visitors who must choose.
  • The film closes in the middle of Shiori turning toward the door — closing on an action shot, rather than on a moment of rest, Kore-eda extends the action and trajectory of the film beyond its close.

Screenshots and dialog copyright © 1999 by the filmmakers.

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