Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life is a gorgeous rumination on life, the follies of memory and the moments that make us who we are. It’s told with a steady, clear voice that contrasts with the standard melodramatic depictions of death in cinema. There is almost no music and certainly no rousing score to tell the audience when characters are nearing their resolution.
It depicts the hereafter as a bureaucracy, one not unlike that of a film set or stage production, dedicated to finding truth in a mess of perspectives. Here, dozens of souls are brought to a way station to speak to emissaries of the afterlife, who task the newly dead with choosing a single memory to view for the rest of eternity. There are men who feel they wasted their lives at work, teenagers who refuse to accept their fate, old women who simply wish to continue gardening, long-lost lovers at last reunited. After choosing their memory, the workers help stage re-creations of those memories for the dead, which allows them to pass on to the afterlife fulfilled.
The film is a mixture of documentary and fiction. Many of the interviews are taken from real people whom Kore-eda interviewed, questioning them about their lives and, in particular, one favorite memory. Good or bad. Kore-eda’s characteristic empathy for everyday experiences, seen in his other films like Still Walking and Shoplifters, is maybe at its best here thanks to the intimacy of the interviews and the ingenious nature of the setup. He blends the fictional story into the documentary footage perfectly, using the workers’ stage productions as a way of driving home the point of the way that memory, and how we remember, defines our reality. It is a kind and constantly surprising experience.
This Criterion edition includes a new 2K restoration approved by a new audio commentary with Linda C. Ehrlich, a new interview with Kore-eda and cinematographers Masayoshi Sukita and Yutaka Yamazaki, the trailer, deleted scenes and a wonderful essay by novelist Viet Tanh Nguyen.