Monday, January 18, 2016

Visiting and Revisiting: After Life (1998) Pt. 1

Aaron: Welcome back to Visiting and Revisiting with Rik and Aaron, a somewhat regular feature where we take turns introducing each other to films that are important to us, but of which the other one has somehow missed. We then discuss the film in blog posts that span both of our sites, in Rik’s case, The Cinema 4 Pylon, and in mine, Working Dead Productions. This is our first installment since October, and also our first non-horror film discussion. The film this time comes recommended by me, and it’s one I’m very excited about discussing, so without further ado…

After Life came out in 1998, when its director, Hirokazu Kore-eda, was 36 years old. Though he had already made a name for himself among international film critics three years earlier with Maborosi, After Life cemented Kore-eda’s position as an important new voice in Japanese cinema. I have not been able to watch any of Kore-eda’s early documentary work, although it seems to follow that his beginnings there, particularly in documenting the emergence of AIDS in Japan, formed much of his style as he transitioned to narrative filmmaking. Maborosi and After Life flow with the unhurried, documentarian’s eye for mundane details that nonetheless speak volumes about his character’s lives, a trait that he has carried with him through the following years. Kore-eda’s films also feature a warmth and humanity that is surprising in its depth, and a gentleness that invites the viewer in, prompting us to find our own meanings and messages within the film. Kore-eda’s films feature a surplus of wonderfully realized individuals, and a distinct lack of recognizable antagonists (a fact that may be hindering his commercial prospects here in the West). Even the ripped-from-the-headlines drama Nobody Knows and his award-winning Still Walking, which both feature his most villainous characters, portray those people as complex and sympathetic rather than vile cutouts.

After Life, briefly stated, is an allegorical film built around one deceptively simple question: “What one memory would you like to take with you into eternity?” The film poses this question early on, and then dedicates two hours to delicately and perceptively exploring all of the ramifications implied by said question. As a group of 22 disparate individuals find themselves in a slightly rundown bureaucratic building, they are told they will be moving on to whatever awaits them beyond death within one week. For three days they will have regular interviews with a group of purgatorial social workers with the aim of choosing one memory out of their entire life that they would want to live within for eternity. After the third day, the staff goes about the business of filming the memory, and on Saturday all of the films will be screened, after which the dead will move on. It’s a concept that could easily devolve into high camp, black comedy, or sentimental drivel, and yet Kore-eda’s style grounds everything in a gentle, subdued manner.

When After Life came out in 1998, I was 20 years old and enrolled in the University of Alaska, Anchorage. I was aware of the film, having heard about it from a pair of teacher’s assistants in my Japanese class, although their critique left much to be desired. “It was OK. Interesting,” was basically what their reaction to catching this film in a theatre amounted to. I wish I had looked further into the film myself, because it would be another four years before I finally tracked down a DVD copy. When I finally watched the film, it was while my ex-girlfriend (current wife) was out of town for a few days, the longest we had been apart since moving in together a year earlier, and I had been in a bit of a melancholy state. Very early into the film I began smiling, and I don’t think I stopped until well after the end credits rolled. It’s not that the film is funny, per se, it’s that the overall feeling is so warm and inviting, so modestly charming, the characters are uniformly likable, the rundown building they work and live in is so homey. Everything works together to invite the viewer in and encourage them to stay. After each of my viewings I’ve felt the urge to immediately begin playing the film again. I think it should be obvious by now, but After Life is a film I absolutely adore. Over the last fifteen years I’ve come to the conclusion that it is as close to a perfect film as any I’ve ever seen.

Hirokazu Kore-eda has a pretty solid critical reputation, and most of his films get positive reviews at Cannes and all the other major festivals, and yet he’s never really broken out of that audience. Rik, I’m wondering if you’d had any previous awareness of this film or his other output, beyond the times when I might have brought it up. As much as I recommend his works, and this film in particular, you are the first person who has actually listened to me and watched the film, and so I’m really excited to see what you have to say about it.

Rik: I have been aware of Kore-eda’s reputation as a growing force in cinema for some time, but had just never buckled down and tried to watch one of his films. My massive database of “must-see” films comprised of titles that have been nominated for major awards or appeared at festivals like Cannes (for example) certainly has some Kore-eda titles contained within it, but I had yet to tackle his filmography. And yes, I do remember you telling me about him from time to time, but when you have thousands of films before you already, it really became a case of “throw another log on the fire”. I would try to get to it eventually. And now I have.

I was recently reading an article onThe Guardian website where Kore-eda was, not really upset, but just mildly anxious that people have been comparing his style to Yasujiro Ozu, the Japanese master director whose style became increasingly minimalist throughout his career, as he created a series of profound, classic family dramas in the late ‘40s and through the ‘50s. Kore-eda considered the comparison a compliment, of course, but felt that his own films were more like Mikio Naruse, who created leisurely paced, working class dramas for four decades in Japan, or the British director, Ken Loach, known for his slice of life films about ordinary people, though with the occasional more political thrust of films like The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Hidden Agenda.

In all three cases – Naruse, Loach, and Kore-eda – the word we are looking for seems to be “humanist”. In Kore-eda’s films, at least the two I have now seen (Hana: The Tale of a Reluctant Samurai [Hana yori mo naho] being the other one), the concern seems to lie not so much with the world in which the characters thrive but in the day-to-day details of their lives and their emotional states. In After Life, I was struck by how quickly he was able to make me care about so many different characters in such a short time, often with a minimal amount of dialogue or personal details. If you are accepting of the premise – that of an existential agency that moves people from their lives on Earth to eternal rest in a heaven-like state – then it should not take much to get you wrapped up quickly in the comforting arms of this film.

Aaron: Rik, am I alone in getting a little bit of a Charlie Kaufman/Michel Gondry vibe from the final parts of this film, where the memories are being recreated on a small soundstage? It seems not-so-distantly related to films like Be Kind Rewind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Synecdoche, New York, though of course predating those works by several years.

Rik: You are not alone at all, sir. I definitely sensed a similar Gondry-esque vibe, though of course it is not taken to the same level of absurdity as things in those others films. The effect here is more workmanlike; even when the agency workers meet up with problems in the course of recreating memories, and even when Shiori’s boss takes her to task for supposedly screwing up, the means of achieving their goals are through reason and hard work, and never centered on fantastical means (even taking in the actual setting of the film into consideration).

Aaron: I’ll agree with you about the workmanlike nature of the film, which I think keeps things from becoming too precious or twee. It’s like the common explanation of the difference between an artist and a craftsman. I’d argue that Kore-eda is both, but I think in temperament he falls closer to craftsman. His concern is telling the story clearly, and in documenting the actions and emotions. I don’t think he’s quite so worried about imparting a general message. As I’ve said, I believe his films allow you the freedom to make up your own mind as to how to interpret them. Which, of course, mirrors what the characters in After Life are doing. Their job isn’t to leave their subjects with a sense of power, beauty and towering importance; their job is to recreate, as accurately as possible, what an actual moment felt, looked, sounded and smelt like. And because these characters are not artists, they approach everything from the pragmatic mind of a social worker, coming up with ways to get a breeze just right, or to mimic the look of an outdoor park bench from inside a small soundstage. Again, they aren’t trying to dictate the emotion; the emotion comes from the viewer. This film is such a perfect melding between style and content.

Of course the big question here is; have you been thinking about what one memory you would choose? I won’t ask you to share it if you have, but I imagine you’ve been giving some thought to the subject. It’s one that has returned to me quite regularly since I first saw this film, and it seems to change from year to year. Once, it was a memory of sitting on the shores of Loch Ness at midnight, later it was a memory of me and my wife laying in the grass in Washington after a particularly epic outdoor concert, after the birth of my daughter I’ve had plenty to choose from, and now I might risk Shiori’s ire by choosing that most clichéd memory; a trip to Disneyland. Our last trip to Disney, my wife and daughter and I, and it was just a relaxed, good day where everything went right, and we ended it with a quiet, fancy dinner where we sat around making easy conversation. That hour at the restaurant, where we sat at a table warming ourselves (it was a chilly day) with good food and laughter seems as nice a moment to live in as any I can think of.

Rik: That answer is easy: I can’t think of one. Or rather, I can’t decide on one. If you were to ask me in one of my more depressed states, I might say that I would like to remember the moment of my death throughout eternity. That is not to be shocking or maudlin, but remembering when you died is a solid way to remind yourself that you were once alive. But if you were to ask me when I was in a good mood (which is rare these days), it might be a moment where I am at dinner with all of my old friends in Anchorage, or a moment when I was creating surrealistic cartoons in my dad’s camper a couple of years ago with my brothers, or when I was four and played on the steps of the 4th Avenue Theatre while going to a showing of Pinocchio. Or it might be an image of me watching Destroy All Monsters on the Channel 11 monster matinee show, where I am sitting on a blanket in our living room eating a bowl of freshly made buttered popcorn. There are a number of moments I could choose – and unsurprisingly, most of them would have nobody else in them -- and it really would depend on how much I would wish to reward or punish myself at that moment of choosing.

It might surprise many that know me to find that a visit to Disneyland wouldn’t be my choice, considering how important it was for me to finally get there and also just how much I have been there over the past decade. That is mainly because, with being there so much now, it would be hard to pick a single memory. Also, I wouldn’t want to tee off Shiori, because she is a cupcake.

Aaron: One thing that bothers me a bit about the ‘one memory for eternity’ concept is that it kind of discounts how our memory works. When we think of one single event from our past, we’re actually thinking of hundreds of other tiny things that went into that one moment. When one of the deceased chooses to remember sitting on a bench with her fiancé before he goes off to war, how much of that context remains once every other memory is gone? Will she remember that her fiancé went to war? That her fiancé died? Will she even remember who the man was? This puzzle isn’t enough to dampen my enjoyment of the film in the least, but I find myself bumping up against it nonetheless whenever I think back to it.

Rik: I agree with you about the workings of memory, or at least our perception of how it works. But that brings up another problem that I had with the memory constructs in the film (and in many other uses of memory in films beyond After Life).

In my experience, our memories don’t have our faces in them. I remember the faces of other people that were at someplace or were doing something, but for myself, there is just a sense of myself, not my image. That is something that bothered me with their recreations in this film. I never see my face in my dreams, and when I have memory flashbacks, the same is true. That may not be true for everyone, especially narcissists, but I would have to believe that it is probably common.

Movies that hew closely to not showing faces in memories or dreams still often cheat and have the protagonist look into a mirror or pool of water, but I cannot recall that ever happening in one of my dreams, nor in my memories. This may be due to low self-esteem in how I see myself (or prefer not to, as it were). What I do have in those dreams and memories, however, is a complete awareness of myself, sometimes to a negative effect, but I am always in control of my sense of self, if not anything else in the dream.

Aaron: Now that you’ve mentioned it, I’m thinking back to various memories and trying to determine whether I visualize myself in them or not. But now I’m putting myself in all of my memories, and I can’t be sure if it’s because you called attention to it, or if I’ve always done that. I think, honestly, it might be a bit of a mixture. I know a lot of my really old memories I see from a third person perspective, because I’ve formed those memories as much from what people have told me about them as from my actual experience. As an adult, however, I do believe you’re correct, and I don’t see myself in them. But for dreams, that’s another story. I tend to shift focus a lot in dreams, where one minute I’m me, doing something, and then another I’m in a different body seeing what I’m doing.

I think that might help explain how the memory constructs would work; perhaps they’d give you the shifting experience of both seeing and feeling what is going on. Or perhaps the memory itself will lock you into your own perspective. Or perhaps, because we are given no information at all about what happens after this one week, the memory is literally a keepsake you take with you as a memento of your life. Maybe eternity does resemble the popular perception of heaven, and the film is something you can put on one night to remind yourself of what you were before. There are so many possibilities that exist, and we’ve got so little information with which to narrow down the options.

Part Two of this discussion can be found on the Cinema 4 Pylon blog by following this link:

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