This clever, affecting drama addresses that age-old question: what happens when we die? Writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda believes that we come to a halfway house between life and eternity, where we spend a week deciding on a single memory that we take with us to the other side.
The film begins with two dozen recently deceased folk arriving at the crumbling centre (which looks very much like a disused school). The five-strong team that runs the house explain to each individually what happens now, that in a week the memory they select will be recreated and filmed at the centre, encouraging every person to think and talk about their lives, making it clear that once that memory has been finally selected, that's it forever.
Much of the first 45 minutes consist of the dead talking straight to camera, sifting through their memories for the right one. There's the man who speaks endlessly about his sexual conquests (in the end he selects his daughter's wedding day), the elderly woman who remains devastated by her husband's death years later, the man who was never happier as when he was soaring through the air in his earlier. Gradually, the strongest narrative is formed by the strange triangle comprising two of the centre's workers and one of the dead. Ichiro (Taketoshi Naito) is a 70-year-old man whose life has provided him with not a single special moment — just seven decades of formality, work and a lifeless marriage. We learn how the past of Takashi (Arata) the young man assigned to help him find a memory is linked with Ichiro's, and how this affects Shiori (Susumu Terajima), the teenage girl who also works at the centre and has fallen in love with Takashi.
Koreeda gained attention for his 1995 film Maborosi, a powerful drama about a young Japanese widow coming to terms with the suicide of her husband, and although ultimately as moving, Afterlife takes its time to weave its spell. There's a lot of characters, and while the stories of their lives are often fascinating, the developing Ichiro/Takashi/Shiori subplot gives the film a stronger pulse.
Koreeda's cleverest move is to treat the job of running this heavenly halfway house like any day job, full of office politics, board meetings and disgruntled employees. The quintet of workers are in fact also dead, visitors to the centre themselves who for whatever reason were unable to choose a memory and remain there until they do. Likewise, the relationship between Takashi and Shiori is played out like any high school romance — it seems love gets no easier after death.
While this is a film principally about loss, regret and looking back, there is plenty of humour and wry observation. The recreation of the selected memories are particularly amusing, each filmed on a makeshift film set, the staff acting as crew. And like the best films, Afterlife demands some post-viewing participation from its audience. If you were to die today, what single memory would you take with you into eternity?
Japanese director who has made both documentaries and dramas for Japanese TV as well as turning in some affecting feature films. Maborosi (1995) was a powerful study of a young woman coming to terms with her husband's suicide, Afterlife (1998) took an inventive look at life-after-death, while 2001's Distance deals with terrorism and sacrifice and I Wish a wistful tale of childhood. Our Little Sister gently developed his interest in the power of memories.