Saturday, February 7, 2009

Two Reflections on First Looking Into Kore-eda's After Life


In Hirokazu Kore-eda's 1998 film After Life, which takes place entirely in a realm beyond death, the newly deceased arrive at what that looks like a partially dilapidated boarding house, spending a week there before passing on. During that week they work with a specially trained staff to select one memory from their life that they wish to keep with them for all eternity, which the staff then set about re-creating in the form of a short film based on the subjects' descriptions. The narrative span of Kore-eda's film runs just over a full week, confines its actions (with one exception) to the buildings' grounds and doesn't speculate as to what the next stage of eternity might look like beyond the fact that the deceased will be able to repeatedly view their filmed memories.

What's interesting about the film's central conceit is that it privileges the individuals' subjective memory over the objective reality of the selected events. The re-creations are forged entirely from the descriptions given by the subjects even though, as we learn later, the organization possesses a complete set of tapes documenting the activity of each person's life and could easily base the films on this presumably objective evidence. But these subjective memories, as they finally come back to their subjects, are then filtered through another (inevitably subjective) layer, the particular sensibility of the filmmaking crew charged with re-creating the events. So how does this intrusion effect the subjective experience of the particular individual reliving the memory? Kore-eda doesn't tell us. Those subjects that he shows watching the films seem perfectly pleased with the results and the question is never really raised. Given the clarity with which the director sketches out a complex operation, we can't fault him for not satisfying our every curiosity, but it's still worth considering how this further layer of filtering might complicate the objective/subjective dichotomy.


But what happens if one of the newly dead either can't or won't select a memory? During the week in which the film takes place, the staff deals with several such difficult "clients," most significantly an older man who views his life as so uniformly unsatisfying that he is unable to locate a single moment that rises above the general mediocrity and a young man who defiantly refuses to comply. When finally pressed as to his reasons for not choosing, the latter cites his need to "take responsibility," a charge that may mean, among other things, that he refuses to acknowledge a single peak of happiness as constituting the entirety of a life. By failing to pick a memory, the young man prefers to rest in a limbo where he can assume responsibility for the totality of his existence. His older counterpart, for his part, finally hits on a memory, and, in a final reflection, decides that this one recalled event justifies the entire life. For some, a person's existence may be defined by its singular moments; for others this conception represents a betrayal of what it means to be human.

The objections raised by the young man, though, have the feel of - I hesitate to use the term bad-faith - but a narrative manipulation of at least a somewhat questionable propriety. Here Kore-eda has created a fanciful situation that has no relation to any existing set of circumstances and then brings in a character to criticize the situation. Perhaps the young man's objections are valid, but those objections are made in reference to a situation that (barring a most unlikely turn-of-afterlife-events) could not possibly exist. Yes, we might say, I too would object to living with only one memory for all of eternity, but that's not really a question that need concern us. None of which is to say that the young man's stance has no significance beyond his specific set of circumstances - indeed his objections hint at the larger question of what constitutes a life - but being so entirely dependant on the film's internal narrative reasoning for its expression, the plot manipulation finally rings false. At such moments, Kore-eda seems locked so heavily into the logic of his self-contained world that he can't see his way out.

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