Memories Are Made of This
In a two-part “Tribute to Donald Richie,” Japan Society, on whose Film Advisory Committee he served for years, is commemorating that much-honored liaison between Japanese culture and the world. To the day, on the first anniversary of his death, the final, packed Part I showing was After Life/Wandafuru Raifu.
The two-hours-less-two-minutes is, as always, written and edited by director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Three years after his Richie-championed 1995 début Maboroshi, this second feature is also concerned with death, which is here neither morbid nor sentimental. More accurately, the moment is the cusp of passing on rather than afterwards.
The stricter Wonderful Life title in English is altered to avoid confusion with Frank Capra’s sentimental but superb post-war film. The Japanese director had cut his teeth in documentary TV and carried non-fiction technique over into dramatic narrative, seeking both up-close realism and distance -- the title of his 2001 take on the sarin gas killer cult -- “the line between fiction and documentary, between real and unreal,” quotidian life conveyed with suppressed emotion.
In 1996 made-for-television Without Memory, about amnesia from brain injury, he had broached the contrary side of the coin. Now, in fuzzy color and occasional lined “video” recreation, AL takes place in what looks like a rural institutional building, perhaps once a school, uncared-for, chilly in autumn, rusted and peeling. Last week eighteen people passed on and through, with now “a heavy load” of twenty-two, from a Disneyland teen girl to an anarchistic spiky-haired twenty-one-year-old to wrinkled septuagenarians.
Checked in one by one from overexposed brilliant nothingness outside the main entrance, they are each assigned to any one of several caseworker-interviewers, with a second sometimes present. Kore-eda and team talked to five-hundred-plus souls from all walks of life, filmed some, incorporated a number of their ideas into the script, and cast ten of them as among the new arrivals.
Cutting with studied randomness among them, the film also covers the actor-interviewer staff, who improvise while suggesting or prodding possible responses and who nightly discuss their results with their loosely titular chief. There are also interactions among these interviewers, in theory purely professional but at times veering into the personal.
The almost two dozen newcomers have died but are not yet officially in any realm of the dead, however. Each must first single out an outstanding memory from his/her life, have it recorded and acted out and movie-filmed on a soundstage, and then carry only this particular impression on into afterlife.
The interviewers in this way-station limbo are, for example, eighteen or twenty-two and look it, but that is merely the age at which they themselves died as long ago as the Second World War or as recently as three years back. They could not, or would not, choose that required one memory and so have no eternity themselves but must question those who now confront the same dilemma of choice.
Crinkled, smooth, defiant, dignified, blank, lustful faces light up the screen. Red dresses, pink blossoms, dead relatives, lovers or whores or no-shows, airplane flights through clouds, and park benches are recalled, filled in, exaggerated, revisited, revised. The very existence of motion picture art depends on retinal memory called persistence of vision at the same time as film is archival racial and individual historical record-memory. In this story there is pathos at loss but much good nature and, elsewhere a device that usually leaves a bad taste, a twist-ending coincidence that elevates both sides of the interview table through already dead shared Kyoko.
To its own amateur band, AL’s whimsical dance of death zeroes in on what is wonderful in life and the people who live it and, in death, stay on in memory.
(Released by Artistic License; not rated by MPAA.)