When a person dies, they go to a way station for a week, where they are told by patient “angels” in black that they have a week to decide on one memory from their lifetimes to bring with them to their eternal afterlife. The angels act as counselors, listening quietly as the people mull over memories they are considering, sometimes gently guiding the people away from clichéd “best moments” like men choosing sex as their choice, or teenage girls enthusiastically selecting Splash Mountain at Disneyland as theirs.
When the memory is selected, the moment is re-created for the person on film, often involving charmingly low-budget movie sets, where the person can supervise the details and the filming, trying to decide if it accurately represents their memory. For instance, one man’s choice was the moment he was flying a small Cessna plane through the clouds. The set-makers create the clouds with puffy cotton balls pulled on wire to create the feeling of movement through clouds. “It’s perfect!” the man exclaims with a smile when he looks at the scene through the camera lens.
The movie is often much like a documentary, with people recounting their lives directly, and often hesitantly to the camera. Kore-eda apparently interviewed some 500 real people about their own memories, and some of them are seamlessly blended into the actual film. Though we get to see snippets of each of the 22 people going through the station that week, the plot lingers on one old man, Watanabe (Takashi Naitô) who considers his 70 years of life mediocre, and can’t seem to choose a specific moment good enough to keep forever. Watanabe’s guide Mochizuki (Arata) and his assistant Shiori (Erika Oda) order videotapes of Watanabe’s life for him to watch and review, hoping it will refresh his memory of a moment he’d like to cherish. In the meantime, Mochizuki realizes a connection from his own previous that he shares with Watanabe.
After Life is sweet, gentle, and melancholy. It poses questions about life and memory, that challenge the viewers to reflect on their own lives. What memory would you choose? What if there is not a single moment that is good enough to carry with you for eternity? What if you couldn’t decide? These questions are offered and deliberated upon, reflecting the diversity of human experience, while deftly avoiding being preachy or judgmental. After Life is a beautiful film, and I give it the highest recommendation.