Memory is a recurrent element in the cinema of Hirokazu Kore-eda. In some of his films, it provides the perspective or structure. In others, it is the central theme, or a supressed undercurrent of anxiety that permeates the surface of a contemporary Japan where people rarely discuss their problems. In his first feature Maborosi (1995), the central character of Yumiko (Makiko Esumi) is haunted by the deaths of her grandmother, for which she still feels responsible, and her husband, who has committed suicide for no apparent reason. Relocating with her daughter from Osaka to a quiet fishing community, she tries not to dwell on the past. Nobody Knows (2004), based on the tragic true story of four young children who were abandoned by their mother in a small Tokyo apartment, presents a recollection of childhood that is steeped in trauma with its focus on confined space, inanimate objects, and psychological signifiers. Still Walking (2008) observes a strained family gathering, as unemployed art restorer Ryota (Hiroshi Abe) spends a few days at his parents’ house, bringing along his new wife and stepson. The events of the film are ultimately framed as memory in a closing scene that has Ryota visiting his parents’ graves and reflecting on the final visit that he made to their home, several years ago. If these protagonists are defined by their memories, the heroine of Air Doll (2009) is characterised by a lack of personal reference. After magically coming to life, sex toy Nozomi (Bae Doona) searches for experience, whether pleasurable or painful, in order to make sense of the world. However, the director’s most direct rumination on the individual significance and selective nature of memory is After Life, a reflective fantasy that filters its premise through the quasi-documentary aesthetic that Kore-eda has practised throughout his fascinating career to date.
After Life imagines a space between Earth and Heaven, where the recently deceased are taken once natural causes or physical misfortune have brought an end to their mortal existence. On arrival, they find themselves in a ramshackle office building where they receive guidance from case workers who are tasked with helping them go to the next stage. Each person must select the happiest memory from their life so that it can be recreated on film. Once the scene is complete, the deceased watch it in a screening room, and vanish, able to relive this moment for eternity. While the film begins with the deceased and their reactions to their respective deaths, the focus gradually shifts to the case workers, who must deal with the variable attitudes of these individuals: some believe that their lives yielded no memories of great significance, others struggle to decide from so many options, and one simply refuses to choose on the grounds that a single recollection cannot completely represent his mortal years.
The first half of After Life involves the detailed interviews that case workers must conduct in order to decide which memories to recreate, suggesting that such recollections constitute a stockpile of personal information that must be systematically sorted and considered in relation to suitability. Many of the memories, although eventually scripted, were actually researched, with 500 people being interviewed. Kore-eda cast the film during this process, balancing non-actors with professionals, and recruiting the documentary cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki to achieve an otherworldly realism. The second half examines the tentative romantic relationship between two case workers, Takashi (Arata) and Shiori (Erika Oda) that cannot develop due to the emotional power of memory: Takashi is unable to reciprocate Shiori’s feelings as he still yearns for the fiancée that he left behind after being killed in World War II.
The process of recreating memory that these case workers facilitate serves to show how such recollections can be erroneous, or subject to embellishment. Indecision or inconsistency on the part of some of the deceased indicates that the memories that are chosen as their passport to eternal happiness are possibly falsely remembered, or partially fictionalised, although Kore-eda does not see this as a problem in the grand scheme of things, providing that sufficient personal resonance is evoked. After Life proposes that memories are ever-shifting, with certain details dependent on the situation in which past circumstances are recalled, or to whom they are being imparted. In the press notes for the film, Kore-eda states: ‘Our memories are not fixed or static. They are dynamic, reflecting selves that are constantly changing. So the act of remembering, of looking back at the past, is by no means redundant or negative. Rather, it challenges us to evolve and mature.’ While most of the deceased ultimately force themselves to examine their personal history, sifting through lives of disappointment and strife to find a positive moment that will take them forward, it transpires that the case workers have been trained for their positions due to being unable to choose a memory. This steadfast refusal, or emotional inability, to explore their past has resulted in a weekly office routine, presented in a pared-down fashion to reflect the salaried existence of many Japanese professionals. However, through assisting the elderly Ichiro (Taketoshi Naito), Takashi discovers that their lives are linked and is finally able to make a choice due to the recollection that is prompted by a realisation of interconnectedness. It is Takashi’s contented expression as his scene plays out that best summarises Kore-eda’s beautiful illustration of the role played by memory in belatedly finding meaning in life’s special, if sometimes fleeting, moments.