After Life

Japan 1998

Reviewed by Tony Rayns


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Limbo, a way-station where the newly dead are invited to select their single happiest memory. Recreated on film by the Limbo staff, this memory will erase all their other memories. Monday. Section chief Nakamura assigns new arrivals to his three clerks for processing: eight to Kawashima, seven to Sugie and seven to Mochizuki, who is assisted by Shiori and seems oblivious to her crush on him. They begin interviewing the dead, helping each to select a defining memory. Tuesday. The interviews continue and the clerks report their problems to Nakamura. Mochizuki has difficulty with Ichiro Watanabe, a retired steel-company executive, who insists that his life was entirely average and uneventful; Mochizuki orders up celestial-surveillance videotapes of his life to help him decide.

Wednesday. Most of the dead succeed in choosing memories. Watching tapes with Watanabe, Mochizuki is amazed to discover that his wife Kyoko was the fiancée he himself lost when he died of a war wound in 1945. Thursday. Preparations are made for recreating the memories on film; the young punk Iseya refuses to choose. Friday. The memories are mocked up and filmed. Watanabe, revaluing his marriage, chooses the moment when he promised to take Kyoko regularly to the movies.

Saturday. Snow falls. The dead disappear from Limbo as they relive their memories in the cinema. Mochizuki finds a note left for him by Watanabe, who realised that he was Kyoko's former fiancé. Shiori finds Kyoko's filmed memory in the archive: it shows her last meeting with Mochizuki. The emotionally frozen Mochizuki (who works in Limbo because he couldn't choose a memory for himself) is shocked and moved to discover he was part of her happiness.

Sunday. Mochizuki tells Nakamura he has finally chosen a memory and is given exceptional permission to film and relive it so that he can move on from Limbo. He is filmed alone on the park bench seen in Kyoko's memory, but his memory includes Shiori and other colleagues in the act of filming him. Monday. Another consignment of the dead arrives for processing. Iseya, still in Limbo, is assigned work as Kawashima's assistant, and Shiori is promoted to take Mochizuki's place. She nervously prepares to conduct her first interview.


One of the visual motifs which runs through After Life turns out in retrospect to be a kind of running gag. Limbo staff-members passing through the corridor on the upper floor of the institution (evidently a former schoolhouse) look up at a skylight and see, variously, the full moon, daylight, falling snow or a crescent moon. But the 'moons' are revealed to be illusions: just shapes formed by a hole in the skylight's cover. This chimes neatly with the wry exposé of film-studio artifice in the Friday chapter, but it also relates to something that section chief Nakamura says to Shiori after she has had a row with Kawashima. The moon is fascinating, he says, because our perception of it changes with the available light, whereas the moon itself never changes.

Separately, both points are easily grasped: simple illusions can generate potent images and reactions; everything depends on how you see it. Together, though, they offer a philosophical conundrum with clear relevance to the ways films are made and seen. Exactly the same can be said of Koreeda's film itself, which deals directly and straightforwardly with all kinds of human issues - the psychological processes of constructing and editing memories, emotional exchange versus dependency, the elusive line between solitude and loneliness - but somehow also adds up to a meditation on cinema as a medium.

The film's genius - and, no doubt, a reason for its popular success in Japan, the US and elsewhere - lies in the way it integrates very disparate materials in an organic whole. The fictional premise that a civil-service bureaucracy awaits us when we die is not original (the film's title in Japan, Wonderful Life, acknowledges that Frank Capra, amongst others, got there first) but Koreeda uses it in a way that no film-maker has done before: to interweave fiction and non-fiction so that each invigorates the other. Documentary material of purely anecdotal interest (for example, a 78-year-old woman's memories of dancing for her supper in the cafés of Aoyama in the 20s) is far more resonant in this fictional context than it would be otherwise; and fictional material (for example, a boring 70-year-old man's belated realisation that his "average" marriage meant the world to him) gains strength and credibility from being intercut with real-life testimonies.

At the same time, the film's fiction/non-fiction interface reflects the premise that memories can be recreated in a film studio with results so 'real' that those remembering can be transported to another plane. Limbo's sound-stage is decidedly low-tech, and the film has a lot of fun watching technicians simulate a solo flight in a Cessna with cotton-wool clouds or a tram ride on a hot, breezy day with off-screen manpower providing the rocking motion. Much effort goes into fabricating images which will connote the senses beyond film's reach: touch, smell, taste. By playing with the ontology of images, Koreeda also blurs the distinction between life and cinema.

Much of this must be very personal to Koreeda, who came to fiction films from a decade making television documentaries, several of which reflect the impossibility of remaining objective and detached when filming prickly human subjects. The film expresses the awkward tension between detachment and engagement in metaphorical terms as Mochizuki's struggle to maintain his virginal cool when brought face to face with the realisation that he represented "happiness" to someone else. This realisation prompts him to choose his own memory (something he has been unable or unwilling to do for the 50-odd years since his physical death), but it's a memory which bucks the system: Mochizuki chooses to go out remembering not only his earthly engagement to a woman who married someone else after he died but also the team camaraderie and work from his time in Limbo, not to mention the young woman who adored him there. The tangle of emotional and cinematic issues here is almost mystical, but the film's simplicity and transparent sincerity make it easy to accept. Koreeda's unique achievement is that he has turned a deeply personal and private problematic into a mirror for every viewer's own fears, desires and memories. 'Masterpiece' seems not too strong a word.


Shiho Sato
Masayuki Akieda
Hirokazu Koreeda
Directors of Photography
Yutaka Yamazaki
Hirokazu Koreeda
Art Directors
Toshihiro Isomi
Hideo Gunji
Yasuhiro Kasamatsu
©TV Man Union, Inc/Engine Film, Inc
Executive Producer
Yutaka Shigenobu
Planning producer
Masahiro Yasuda
Line Producer
Osamu Shiraishi
Post-production Supervisor
Shuichi Kakesu
Yu Nakamura
Takahiro Mitsuyoshi
Yuka Tashiro
Assistant Directors
Iwao Takahashi
Naohiro Asano
Miwa Nishikawa
Teiitsu Kin
Director of Photography
Masayoshi Sukita
Yuzuru Sato
Shigeki Nakamura
Koichiro Yamamoto
Kazuko Yamamoto
Shigeru Aoki
Mutsuki Sakai
Hideki Takeuchi
Tetsuo Kaneko
Sound Design/Recording Engineer
Osamu Takizawa
Sound Effects
Kenji Shibazaki
Takashi Mochizuki
Erika Oda
Shiori Satonaka
Susumu Terajima
Satoru Kawashima
Taketoshi Naito
Ichiro Watanabe
Kyoko Kagawa
Kyoko Watanabe
Kei Tani
Ken-nosuke Nakamura
Takashi Naito
Takuro Sugie
Sadao Abe
Ichiro Watanabe, student days
Toru Yuri
Kisuke Shoda
Kazuko Shirakawa
Nobuko Amano
Yusuke Iseya
Yusuke Iseya
Hisako Hara
Kiyo Nishimura
Sayaka Yoshino
Kana Yoshimoto
Kotaro Shiga
Kenji Yamamoto
Natsuo Ishido
Kyoko Tsukamoto, student days
Akio Yokoyama
Tomomi Hiraiwa
Yasuhiro Kasamatsu
Kazuji Araki
Kunio Endo
Michi Okuma
Shinichiro Okuno
Yoshitaka Kaneko
Keigyoku Kin
Yone Kori
Masa-aki Kojima
Terumasa Takahashi
Chie Takamatsu
Kimiko Tatara
Toshio Nomoto
Nanae Hirakawa
Taro Bundo
Tae Kimura
Makoto Shinozaki
Miyako Yamaguchi
Tatsumasa Akieda
Minami Usui
Yuri Isomi
Misato Isomi
Goki Kashiwayama
Haruka Kodo
Toranosuke Aizawa
Tatsuo Kimura
Masaru Goto
Ichiro Tanaka
Takashi Nakagawa
Takuya Nishimura
Masayuki Hagiwara
Kazuyuki Haneda
Kaoru Mashimo
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Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011