Fantasy films must have rules. The rules may be established slowly (Planet of the Apes) or the films may subsequently break the rules they’ve set up (Inception), but rules are necessary. I liked Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 1998 film After Life because its rules were so simple, and yet they allowed for a large number of different explorations of its concept.
The most important rule is right there in the title: the movie takes place in the afterlife. A team of filmmakers asks recently deceased people for one memory from their lives that they would like to experience for all eternity. They then film that memory, and watching the film will send the deceased into that eternal memory. That’s all there is, thus proving (as did last week’s 12 Monkeys) that you don’t need huge effects for a quality fantasy concept.
Those rules are both a boon and a massive drawback for this film. On one hand, the premise will draw viewers’ thought directly to their own lives; it’s practically impossible to watch After Life and not wonder which of your own memories you would choose. On the other hand, in the first 10-15 minutes of this film it becomes clear exactly how it will end. After Life is in the odd position that it has the highest possible stakes (the meaning and nature of life itself) while having absolutely no stakes at all.
That it not to say that After Life is a bad film; it is, however, quite mild. There is some conflict, in that certain characters can’t or won’t decide upon what memory they want to use, but the consequences of that conflict do not seem very intense. If I were unable to think of a memory, it would seem to imply that I had lived a boring or loveless life, which is rather sad. But Kore-eda’s afterlife seems like a pleasant enough place where a soul can find purpose and even love, so losing the conflict is not such a bad thing.
One odd result of seeing After Life is that I appreciated strongly moralizing films about death a little more. Movies like It’s A Wonderful Life use the afterlife as a way to preach to us about how we live, and there hangs the threat of horrible suffering if one lives as a bad person. Sometimes that preachiness can seem didactic or cornball, but consider the alternative: After Life has no morality, so there is no message. Would a serial killer get to choose the memory of his favorite slaughter, and get to live with that memory forever? Kore-eda doesn’t really go there, but one has to assume that the answer is yes.
The message that After Life saves most of its energy for delivering is the power of film to evoke and preserve one’s feelings and memories. The filmmakers of the afterlife don’t have much of a budget; they work on small sets with almost nothing in the way of special effects. But they aren’t making a documentary; they want to capture the feelings and emotions evoked by the moment. So even though there is never any evidence that these characters could be considered angels or even ghosts, there’s a strong feeling that they are doing magic … the same sort of movie magic that I attributed to The Wizard of Oz.
As you might expect from a movie so philosophical, After Life is a very quiet movie with subdued performances. The emotions that these characters feel are strong, but there is never that sort of moment that would be called Oscar-bait in an American film, where a character goes big and loud and explosively angry or sad. No actor seems insincere, but if I were a voter for the Japanese version of the Oscars I would not single out any one performer to receive a statue. The acting, much like the subject matter itself, is a positive experience but not superlative.
As a result of that mildness, more than one Movie Klubber slept through parts of After Life. They liked what they saw when they were awake, and they experienced enough of the important parts to be posed with some interesting questions about the nature of life. But I just can’t help but feel that a great film should be a little more riveting.
Reviewed by Mark Young