A review requested by Nathan Morrow, with thanks for supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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There is a tradition of "the bureaucracy of Heaven" movies going as far back as 1941's Here Comes Mr. Jordan, to my absolute knowledge (and coming as close to the present as Pixar's Coco, still in first-run theaters as I write these words), and I wouldn't doubt for a minute that it's older.* So no points to 1998's After Life simply for originality, not in an absolutely sense. Still and all, this is a pretty wildly special film, one that bears a marked resemblance to a lot of films - the then-seven-year-old Defending Your Life strikes me as a particularly clear touchstone - but still manages to feel like a mostly complete original.

There are two big differences between After Life and basically every other variation on the theme I can name, and they're tightly interlinked. First, this is a character drama, not without its glancing touches of humor (it is, all in all, an extremely light-weight film, which I mean as a description of tone & not a dismissal of its merits), but impossible to describe as a comedy, and only a fantasy in the most literal sense. Second, it subscribes to a perfectly ordinary realist aesthetic - an almost conspicuously unstylish style, one might say, though my knowledge of Japanese filmmaking norms in the 1990s isn't enough for me to confidently declare that the docu-fiction handheld look the film employs was as familiar in that country in 1998 as it was in Europe and America around the same time.

In short: a wild daydream about what might happen to human souls after they die this might be, but writer-director Kore-eda Hirokazu - here making his first film which really put the world outside of Japan on notice, though it wouldn't be until six years and two films later that he really broke through with Nobody Knows - is mostly interested in the most basic, everyday kind of thoughts and feelings. And so the apparent gap between content and style; I say "apparent", because honestly, After Life thrives on this simple, rough aesthetic, and I rather doubt that it would be nearly as good if it looked any other way. The realism grounds the fantastic narrative, and the fantasy in turn makes the realism seem startling and new.

The film's idea of the afterlife goes like this: when you die, you arrive in a most peculiar form of purgatory: a vaguely disappointing official-seeming building whose best days appear to have been about 40 years ago, with a squarish exterior that looks like an East German health spa. Here you are greeted by a counselor who informs you that you may choose one single memory from your life to dwell in for the rest of time - your personal heaven is your happiest memory on an endless loop. This all happens on Monday, and you need to pick a memory by Wednesday night, at which point the staff of the facility stage and film the memory. Sunday evening, all the week's guests settle in for a screening of the memories, drifting away to Whatever Comes Next as their private memory plays out.

After Life takes place over one week, and mostly focuses on two characters: Takashi (Iura Arata) and trainee Shiori (Erika Oda). There's only a little bit of story as such; mostly, it's just an exercise in watching these and other staff go about the business of first digging out of the recently deceased what their single best memory was, and then digging out enough details to convincingly re-stage it. A procedural, basically, though one for a procedure that exists nowhere on this earth (though I suppose you could reach a little and suggest that this is more than a little reminiscent of the outwardly patient, inwardly annoyed employees of a nursing home nudging along residents with dementia; the film even includes a quiet little joke at this idea, with a woman who "already chose her favorite memory in life" - she died thinking she was nine years old).

Kore-eda treats this with the softest of touches, so soft that you might miss how inordinately dense the film is with ideas. Not least of these is the simple matter of that central plot hook: so, what is your single happiest memory? And does it actually sound like a good idea to live inside of it, perpetually, for all eternity? Maybe not, seems to be the answer, whispered in just one moment that isn't given any particular emphasis visually or dramatically. And I think it makes the film all the richer that it doesn't loudly come down on any side of the issues it raises, but instead allows them to percolate as a particularly thorny what-if.

Of course, given that there is no such thing as the agency that converts happy memories into personal, private heavens, so there must hopefully be more to it than that. And there is, a whole lot more, though this too the film allows to simmer quietly, never actually stating what its themes are. So maybe they're not even the film's themes; maybe they're just my themes. And that itself - that feeling that the film is guiding you towards thoughts rather than plonking them in your brain, fully-formed - is yet another wonderful strength of After Life; it all feels inevitable to go through complicated philosophical gymnastics, yet looking back over anything that happened in two hours, there's no point at which the film has done more than simply walk you through the denotative elements of its plot. Anyway, my best assumption is that the film is a cautionary fable against being morbidly over-connected to the past; that the protagonists are the facility staff who have retained their personal histories of life would argue for this. Especially the matter of Takashi, whose happiest memories also make him very sad, as we sort of learn in slantwise manner.

And then there's the matter of cinema: the memories aren't real memories, but movies, and whereas the film's first half is largely concerned with how memory, identity, and happiness all circle around each other, the second half spends a lot of time on film production. Namely, the idea of getting it "right", creating a short piece of celluloid that captures something true and beautiful and emotionally powerful. The filmmaking we see in the film is cheerfully low-fi, almost amateurish; After Life is a celebration of cinema as a joyful thing, creative and fun and ultimately meaningful.

That part, at least, is unabashedly optimistic and upbeat. The film's deeper philosophical implications are a bit heavy and difficult to work through in some ways; there are no ideas that were new in 1998, but they're presented with particular grace and effortlessness, and som eof them are awfully challenging. For example, the notion that heaven is a bit of a farce, since we need some bittersweet suffering in our lives to really give them shape and depth (again, not a theme the film states, but one that seems hard to ignore); as well as the counterargument, that the counselors are doing something good for these people, and that watching them dig into their souls to recognise when they were truly happy (and many of the deceased souls recalling their memories were non-actors without scripts, speaking from their own experience; you can't always feel it in the finished project, but there are some truly moving reminiscences in there) is an enriching experience, rather than toxically nostalgic one. It's not a proscriptive film; it lets us feel as warm, or as troubled, or as dazzlingly charmed, as we want. It is a wonderful, unfussy, achingly human movie, airy and open and exceedingly generous-minded. I think it has too much of a reputation to call it meaningfully under-appreciated, but I still feel like sometime in the 20 years since it came out, at least one other person should have grabbed me and said, "you seriously have to check this out"; it's a film that commands attention, admiration, and a little bit of love, though it's otherwise as undemanding a film as I can imagine.

*Older by a few thousand years, as a matter of fact, but this is a movie review site, not a Chinese mythology review site.

†That we know of. Luckily for me, anybody who could tell me I'm wrong is dead.