Some memories are best left alone, but one doesn’t know that until one tries to relive them, sometimes to great disappointment. A book or movie that occupies a hallowed place in the mind from when it was first encountered in childhood or young adulthood may not be as wonderful when reencountered decades later. The times have changed, as has oneself. I have deliberately not rewatched Il postino for this reason, preferring to remember it as I saw it with the young woman who would become my wife, when it was a romantic and political touchstone that helped bring us together. Perhaps the movie would be as wonderful now as then, but why risk it?
It was a gamble, then, to rewatch Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life (1998), which I first saw when it came out in theaters. I remembered the plot well enough, about a way station through which the newly dead transit on their way to eternity. A small staff oversees the operation, which appears to be a bit underfunded, judging by the spartan rooms, the aging infrastructure, and the lack of heat, evidenced by how everyone is bundled up inside as the weather turns to winter. The dead are told that they have a few days to choose one brief memory from their lives, which the staff will recreate on film, to serve as the infinite loop that they will see in perpetuity.
I loved the movie back then for its melancholy and its measured descent into an emotional revelation, the profundity of which lingered, and the welcome news is that I still do. If anything, the movie feels more insightful to me now, two decades later and after the passing of my mother, than it did at a time when I did not yet know death. Part of the magic of the movie comes from its balancing of philosophical questions about death, memory, and film with a story and style that are understated in tone and design. The Hollywood version would probably involve a soaring orchestral score, exaggerated emotions, and an explanation of the mechanics of the premise. After Life—Kore-eda’s second fiction feature, which brought him international acclaim and helped pave the way for later masterpieces such as Shoplifters (2018)—is resolutely not that film. It has little music beyond that provided by an off-tune house band composed of the way station’s workers; just one emotional outburst, which involves only some kicking of snow, alone, by Shiori (Erika Oda), an upset eighteen-year-old member of the staff; and no attempt to justify the world presented.
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