The question of what happens after this life has plagued humanity for centuries. Nothing, Nothingness, Valhalla, Heaven, or Hell: these and others have all been theorized as the next step once we’ve shuffled off this mortal coil and moved into the next phase. What’s fascinating about writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 1998 film After Life is that it not only addresses this question, but offers an idea of a kind of limbo beforehand wherein individuals can contemplate their life and explore their memories. Through a loose narrative structure and direction/editing that mimics documentaries, the audience goes on a journey of the philosophical and ethereal set over a period of a week. Everything about the film evokes the notion of transition from the first shot to the last, instilling an atmosphere of wonder and personal contemplation. Restored in partnership with Kore-eda, The Criterion Collection welcomes After Life into the fold, complete with a 2k digital restoration of the video and uncompressed soundtrack on the Blu-ray. As usual, cinephiles looking for that little something extra will discover three brand-new interviews, as well as a feature-length commentary track from film scholar Linda C. Ehrlich.
Set in an unknown location in Japan is one of a series of branch offices in which the workers welcome and work with the recently deceased. Their job isn’t to offer consolation or guidance, they are not counselors; rather, their purpose is more distinct: to discover the deceased’s favorite respective memory in which they will spend eternity. After a series of interviews, the information gathered by the interviewers is collected and is given to a second unit who recreate the memories and record them on film so that, at the end of the week, everyone can gather together to watch the collective memories before each person leaves for their forever after. As with all interactions, the observer often learns something from the observed, creating an unexpected change from within.
One of the most striking things about After Life, if one would even call it striking, is how enervated it all appears. From the building to the frigged weather, everything seems a bit run-down and a tiny bit mid-transition. The truth is that the branch is not on the verge of collapse so much as well-worn, used, and resolute. The production design implies perpetual use, rustic yet capable. As the audience spends time with the interviewers, we learn that it’s not just the surroundings which shouldn’t be judged, as they themselves may not be as old as they appear given that they, too, are members of the post-alive club. Their reasonings for not moving on are personal and irrelevant to the core story, and the lack of exploration beyond two characters — Arata’s Takashi Mochizuki and Erika Oda’s Shiori Satonaka — helps create a sense of their individual roles as part of a larger collective machine, one which is working constantly, bringing in new people for transition assistance each Monday and saying goodbye each Sunday. For a modernist example, think of Takashi and Shiori as something like Ted Danson’s Michael and D’Arcy Carden’s Janet who run the neighborhood in NBC’s ethical dramedy The Good Place, though the comparison is by no means equal. That these offices don’t seem to be separate from the Earthly plane of existence, as hinted at by a sequence when Shiori goes to take photos of locations to help re-create a memory, implies the connection between this world and whatever’s next. Between this and the lack of shock coming from the interviewees brings a strange comfort as one watches, offering a sense that we’re never really gone, even if our spirits are absent the traditional form.
What truly elevates After Life is how the cinematography and editing convey a sense documentation rather than a traditional narrative feature. During the interviews, the camera is fixed, showing only the interviewees, watching them as the shift in their seats, adjusting to find a comfortable place as they tell whatever stories come to mind. Its only when the interviewers are engaging with each other or the natural world that the camera moves more freely. This results in extended scenes of storytelling from the interviewees, often with visible editing to trim or focus the stories. Despite knowing that After Life is a fiction, there’s a deceptive quality to the style, pulling us in as though each story and the storyteller are real and that we’ve been invited to peek behind the curtain at the place beyond life. In this way, After Life, especially as it moves into the process of recreating the individual memories, becomes something more meditative on the nature of memory and what we each value, what moments, what sensations, what brings us to our most peaceful, pleasurable, or content. The variety of responses from the interviewees we meet is startling in their variation from how one felt wearing a dress to the meal shared after seeking shelter from a horrifying incident. Moments large and small that shaped our perspectives so uniquely truly can come from anywhere. Kore-eda’s tale moves slowly, seeming leisurely from start to finish, yet, all the while, is pushing the audience to consider their own lives and the choice they would make. Would you choose the moment you gave birth? The instance where you felt true peace? What about in the act of something that brought comfort or pleasure? There is no wrong answer to the question, it’s only important that you think about it.
If one wanted to, there’s an entire analysis that can be made regarding the organization’s recreation of memories using modern-for-the-time technology to do so. As our memories are shaped by our emotions and what we perceive/understand/feel and technology can never truly replicate the moment itself as it has its own limitations. It’s a facsimile at best, a false notion at worst, but the fact that the organization relies on technology at all is a bit of meta-commentary on the stories we tell to others and ourselves. When we look back on our memories, we shade them with the emotions of that period. Sometimes we soften them, sometimes not, but they are almost certainly never as we recall. But the act of remembering keeps those moments alive and so, in a way, the moment never passes. Much like these travelers going from one state of being to another, they are not quite forgotten as long as they remember it.
Allowing for a deeper dive into a film is Criterion’s bread and butter and this release is no different. There are five distinct offerings, each providing a greater understanding of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film. As mentioned, the first is a feature-length commentary track from scholar Linda C. Ehrlich, which you can turn on or off from the main film. Totaling just shy of an hour are three brand-new interviews recorded by Criterion with Kore-eda himself, director of photography Yutaka Yamazaki, and photographer and cinematographer Masayoshi Sukita. The beauty of each is hearing their respective perspectives on the film, which, while that seems obvious, becomes even more important given the themes of the film. Seeing where their ideas converge or deviate further supports the notion of individual perspective, even through a shared experience. The last on-disc feature is nearly 17 minutes of deleted scenes. Offering his thoughts on the film is author Viet Thanh Nguyen with another essay detailing his personal reaction to revisiting After Life after so many years, as well as offering some interesting considerations regarding his interpretation. This essay is, as always, included in each edition of the release with the liner notes.
Regarding the restoration itself, the liner notes state that the soundtrack was remastered from the digital master audio files and that TV Man Union handled the 2k video restoration. Using DFT Scanity film scanner, a brand new digital transfer maintaining the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio was made from the 35 mm duplicate negative, itself made from the Super 16 mm original camera negative. All of which, as mentioned, was approved by Kore-eda himself. Unlike other restorations which come out crisp and clean, there’s a great deal of visible artifacting when presented on a 4K UHD television. Where it might have been a distraction with other releases, it fit nicely with the overall art and production design of the film. Where it needed to be clear, like the few outdoors scenes, a fresh image was present, but, within the offices, there was a nice used feel present in each frame.
If I had to choose, and I certainly hope I have more than my current 40 years of life to select from when the times comes, I might choose the day of my wedding. It’s one of the last days I felt joy without any pressure of tomorrow. I’d known for a long time that I wanted to spend every one of my living days with Crystal and the wedding solidified it for her. There was joy in gathering with my friends and family, some whom I hadn’t seen in-person for a while, others I haven’t seen in-person since. There was joy shared between two families gathering together, with the briefest respite of tension between my divorced parents. Within all of that, at the center of it, is a peace and calm where my heart lies with Crystal. We had no clue what we were doing the next day (literally, not a joke) but we were all in on the present and it was glorious. Song, dance, food, and family. As of now, if I had to select a memory to spend eternity, that’s a pretty great one.
After Life Special Features:
- New 2K restoration, approved by writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- New audio commentary featuring film scholar Linda C. Ehrlich
- New interview with Hirokazu Kore-eda, recorded in Seoul, South Korea in 2021 (19:18)
- New interview with director of photography Yutaka Yamazaki, recorded in Tokyo in 2021 (19:41)
- New interview with photographer and cinematographer Masayoshi Sukita, recorded in Tokyo in 2021 (15:38)
- Treasure of Memory: Deleted scenes (16:53)
- PLUS: An essay by novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen
- New cover featuring photography by Masayoshi Sukita, designed by Eric Skillman
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection August 10th, 2021.