A fantasy that uses the mundane to illuminate the celestial, and vice versa, After Life takes place in a purgatorial way-station that looks like a high school converted into a traffic bureau. But it’s not exactly limbo; it’s a makeshift movie studio. Every Monday, about 20 new arrivals—the recently deceased—check in at the lobby office, and in six days’ time, they’ll be whisked off to heaven. In the meantime, though, they’re given one last task: They have three days to select one memory, the happiest or most indelible moment of their lives. The rest of the week, they’ll film a reenactment of that moment; that and the memory will be all they carry into eternity. All other memories, good and bad, will vanish.
It’s the beauty of the saved memories, and the burden of those that are lost, that makes After Life so affecting. The film originated out of a documentary project by the director, Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose work characteristically addresses death and memory—one of his previous docs concerns a man whose brain damage causes his memories to fade after only an hour. According to Film Comment, Kore-eda began After Life by inviting people to share one moment they’d like to keep forever; he then incorporated some of these people into the film alongside professional actors.
His script follows a deceptively plodding path, charting the daily progress made by each person: a morose husband, a pilot, a grandmotherly woman who was happiest dancing as a child. I say deceptively, because it isn’t until the movie’s devastating resolution, a crisis of memory that affects two heavenly staffers for entirely different reasons, that you realize how beautifully the director has shaped the movie—he transforms the ongoing rituals of bureaucracy into a metaphor for death and renewal. The afterlife-as-bureaucracy angle has appeared before, in movies ranging from Defending Your Life to Heaven Can Wait. Here, though, the documentary solidity—the grounding of fantasy material in a prosaic setting—becomes a kind of serene poetry.
In Japanese with subtitles, the movie's at 7:30 p.m. in Vanderbilt's Sarratt Cinema, free and open to the public. Dr. Gerald Figal, Vanderbilt associate professor of history and Asian studies, will introduce.