Hirokazu Kore-eda’s reflective fantasy After Life imagines a space between Earth and Heaven, where the recently deceased are taken once natural causes or physical misfortune have brought an end to their mortal existence. On arrival, they find themselves in an anonymous office building where they receive guidance from the case workers tasked with helping them go to the next stage. In order to achieve this, each must select the happiest memory from their life so it can be recreated on film. Once the scene is completed, the deceased watch it in a screening room, and vanish, able to relive this moment for eternity. While the film begins with the deceased and their reactions to their respective deaths, the focus gradually shifts to the case workers, who must deal with the variable attitudes of these individuals: some believe that their lives yielded no memories of great significance, others struggle to decide from so many options, and one simply refuses to choose on the grounds that a single recollection cannot completely represent his mortal years.
The first half of After Life involves the detailed interviews that case workers must conduct in order to decide which memories to recreate, suggesting that such recollections constitute a stockpile of personal information that must be systematically sorted and considered in relation to suitability. Many of the memories, although eventually scripted, were actually researched, with 500 people being interviewed. Kore-eda cast the film during this process, balancing non-actors with professionals, and recruiting the documentary cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki to achieve an otherworldly realism. The second half examines the tentative romantic relationship between two case workers, Takashi (Arata) and Shiori (Erika Oda), that cannot develop precisely because of the emotional power of memory: Takashi is unable to reciprocate Shiori’s feelings as he still yearns for the fiancée that he left behind after being killed in World War II.
The process of recreating memory that these case workers facilitate serves to show how such recollections can be erroneous, or subject to embellishment. Indecision or inconsistency on the part of some of the deceased indicates that the memories that are chosen as their passport to eternal happiness are possibly falsely remembered, or partially fictionalised, although Kore-eda does not see this as a problem, providing that sufficient personal resonance is evoked. After Life proposes that memories are ever shifting, with particular details dependent on the situation in which past circumstances are recalled, or to whom they are being imparted.
Most of the deceased ultimately force themselves to examine their personal history, sifting through lives of disappointment and strife to find a positive moment that will take them forward. However, it transpires that the caseworkers have been trained for their positions after being unable to choose a memory and therefore remained in limbo. This steadfast refusal, or emotional inability, to explore their past has resulted in a weekly office routine, presented in a pared-down fashion to reflect the salaried existence of many Japanese professionals. Through assisting the elderly Ichiro (Taketoshi Naito), Takashi discovers that their lives are linked and is finally able to make a choice due to the recollection that is prompted by a realisation of interconnectedness. It is Takashi’s contented expression as his scene plays out that best summarises Kore-eda’s beautiful illustration of the role played by memory in belatedly finding meaning in life’s special, if sometimes fleeting, moments.