While writing the script for After Life, a film about limbo, Japanese filmmaker Kore-eda Hirokazu (Maborosi) asked 500 people to choose one memory that would sustain them for eternity. Some of these interviews were simply incorporated into the film, and others were later scripted for the actors. In Kore-eda's cinematic vision of purgatory, the recently deceased get to heaven by choosing a memory; those who cannot, or who refuse to choose one, are given jobs as counselors to the deceased, actually benevolent bureaucrats whose job it is to 'process' about 20 souls a week. The counselors help the deceased to retrieve the memory and serve as film producers, assisting their charges in scripting and filming their final memory. These productions become the archival footage, the memory, of limbo. How people remember, how they fictionalize their memories, and the nature of memory itself are all part of the fascination of After Life, which opens with delightful snippets of people in the act of remembering.
In Maborosi, his first fictional film, Kore-eda--who has also directed award-winning television documentaries--tells the story of a young mother whose husband commits suicide by walking into an oncoming train. She is haunted by the memory of the man she loved and thought she knew. In a recent documentary, Without Memory, Kore-eda spent three years filming a man whose short-term memory had been systematically destroyed by the brain damage he suffered during a hospital stay. As a child, Kore-eda experienced first-hand the profound effect of memory loss with his grandfather's slow decline into senility. In the notes for After Life, he writes: 'One day, he no longer recognized our faces. Finally, he could not recognize his own.' Inspired by this event, and the acts of remembering which he witnessed many times during the interviews he conducted, Kore-eda created a film which forces us to question the nature of memory--as a 'true' recollection and as a semi-fictionalized account. At one point in the film, a counselor corrects the memory of one of the deceased by pointing out that the hotel she remembers was destroyed before the date she claims to have been there.
Forced to revise her memory, she finally decides it really doesn't matter where the incident took place--what she was feeling was far more important. That, in essence, is the conclusion Kore-eda reaches in the film: A truthful memory of our emotions, not of the places we inhabit, allows us to ascribe meaning to our lives.
Watanabe (Naito Taketoshi), one of the protagonists who is having great difficulty choosing a memory, turns out to be the husband of a woman who was once his counselor's fiancƒe. Mochizuki (Arata), the counselor, who has spent 50 years in limbo, is so moved by this coincidence--and by his recollection of his fiancƒe who chose their engagement as her memory--that he is finally able to choose a memory himself. His colleagues who film that memory, and Watanabe, who leaves him a letter telling him that his fiancƒe visited his grave every day until her death, are implicated in Mochizuki's catharsis. It's an interesting twist that raises the issue of how closely our memories are intertwined with the memories of others. Like his fellow protagonists in limbo, it is Mochizuki's ability and his willingness to remember that determine whether or not he can move on. Our lives, too, are circumscribed by our ability and our willingness to contextualize our experience in light of our memories.
Like every filmmaker whose primary interest lies in illustrating the unseen, Kore-eda's visual style owes much to the Transcendentalists, Yasujiro Ozu among them. Paul Schrader (in Transcendental Style in Film) wrote that in the Japanese director's films 'the action gives meaning to the still life.' When the deceased are contemplating their lives at the beginning of After Life, Kore-eda's sets are as sparse as sets can be; only an occasional window gives any hint of an alternate reality. After they've chosen their memory, the sets are designed and the deceased give form to eternity. The set, and by extension the world itself, is infused with the meaning we bring to it. It is our collective memories that animate the universe, that infuse the world with meaning, that hint at the divine. Without them, we're lost--in limbo.