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Afterlife (Koreeda Hirokazu 2001)


[Wonderful Life / Wandafuru raifu]

Genre: Supernatural Drama

review in one breath

This film, written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, gets an "A" (in my book) for conceptual creativity. Afterlife (also known as Wandafuru raifu or "Wonderful Life") truly challenges its audience (as well as its characters) to ponder deeply the meaning of life and death. The story is set in what one might call "limbo", although here this consists of an entire world which looks, feels and is populated exactly as the real world. The characters, however, are all deceased and we accompany them through their first seven days of this "limbo" during which they must decide on only one memory from their life with which they will spend the rest of eternity. While the many characters wrestle with isolating a single significant memory from among many, or from among none, we in the audience will inevitably begin thinking along these same lines, searching for criteria whereby some past moments are deemed more valuable than others. Should a "fun" moment be prioritized above a "serene" moment? Or how about the moment of sexual ecstacy or the moment of secure love?


To the sound of a bell tolling, the newly deceased file into the cloud-filled lobby of what appears to be a school building. There they are each assigned to a staff member for processing. This is one of several such "processing centers". It is the task of the center's staff to help the client decide on a single memory, ascertaining as much detail as possible. The accumulated information is then used to recreate the memory as accurately as possible using film sets and props. The memory is ultimately captured on film and shown to the individual. Once the memory is thus "relived", the deceased disappears, carrying the single memory (and no other) with him/her into eternity. This must be accomplished for each client within a 7 day period.

The interviews are quite fascinating and are presented in documentary style. In fact, most of those interviewed are not professional actors/actresses and seem to be genuinely grappling to answer the questions posed with actual memories. The Japanese friend I watched this film with was convinced that these were actual interviews. Whether or not they were rehearsed (I also thought they were impromtu), the documentary style really draws the viewer into the process and the entire experience seems quite sincere and meaningful.

The story moves sequentially through each of the seven days during which we become increasingly familiar with both staff and clients. In particular, we follow Mochizuki, who has been working as a processor for the last 50 years following his death in the war in 1945 at age 22. Though he still appears 22 years of age, he has to date seen countless souls off to eternity, helping each deal with the difficulties, joys and sorrows of deciding upon a single, life-defining memory. The story serves as much of a coming-to-realization for Mochizuki as it does for this particular week's clients, and by the end of the film, Mochizuki himself will have discovered his single memory.

He has not, up to this point, been able to choose a single memory, and for that reason he has been assigned a position on the staff. In fact, all those who work for the processing center were unable to decide on a memory, for one reason or another, and so all remain in the state of limbo until they are able to come to terms with what restrains them from choosing. Some are unable to choose out of anger at their sudden, seemingly unjust, misfortune. Others cannot choose out of the great sorrow they have for loved ones left behind. And still others will not decide out of sheer rebellion against authority. The vast majority of clients, however, do as they are told and eventually come to decide on a memory of significance to them.

This movie is quite profound and will leave you thinking. This review has used the word "limbo" (which is often otherwise employed to refer to a Catholic notion of "purgatory" following death) to describe the location, but to be honest to the film, it must be recognized that this is a foreign term that does not have place in the Japanese psyche. Shinto does not have a well-defined eschatology whereby the afterlife and all that it contains is delineated. And so while Westerners might view this film, associating the staff as working for the "Big Guy" while they help the clients off to a "heavenly" destination, there is none of that implied in the story. Rather, those working are those who are trapped (through inability to choose) and those who pass through do so by entering the frozen moment of a single memory. Even the Processing Center is simply located in an abandoned school building within the world of the living, a world which the story's characters can see while they themselves remain invisible to it. The fact that Kawashima, another staff, admits that he is unable to see his (living) young daughter except on the Obon Festival (the Japanese Day of the Dead) seems to suggest that they account for the ghosts which the world of the living has notions of. (This fits well with common explanations that such ghosts are at "unrest" and have yet to come to a true resolution regarding their death, since the staff are staff precisely due to their inability/unwillingness to choose a memory and pass onto eternity.) Here there is no "god" or heaven, no angels or demons, no judgment, salvation or sin; just the presence of a single rule (ie, "Choose a memory") which may or may not be obeyed.

The film concludes, as I said earlier, with Mochizuki's own choice regarding his memory. Through circumstances that arise through interviewing one particular client, Mochizuki is faced with someone else's recollection of his life, which provides him a new perspective on its meaning and value. The story's conclusion has real meaning and depth. I felt as if I had witnessed a meaninful and satisfying statement. This is probably one movie which, if remade for American audiences, will lose everything in the translation.

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
Creative Japanese intuitions regarding the days following death and the "rules" which govern what must happen. No violence whatsoever. Despite some vivid memories by a formerly-amorous client, no nudity or sexual content. The impact of the documetary-style is really worth mention here. The mixture of serious conceptual content with strange hypotheses regarding what happens following death works very well. The ending has real payoff value as well.


I have senn this movie about 4 years ago (loved it) and I still think about which memory I would like to take with me. It is so hard to choose. So many moments. I know Hollywood will make its own film about this like so many other Japanese movies that they have basterdised. Never ever see the american version of a japanese movie re: The house on the lake; The Ring etc etc.

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