After Life (ワンダフルライフ, Hirokazu Koreeda, 1998)

Afterlife posterAt the end of your life, if someone asks you what it all meant, what will you say? It’s a question that can’t be answered until after you’ve turned the final page, but there is an idea at least that death brings clarity, rendering all things simple from a strange perspective of subjective objectivity. This is the central idea behind Hirokazu Koreeda’s meta existential fantasy After Life (ワンダフルライフ, Wonderful Life) in which the recently deceased are given seven days grace in order to decide on their most precious memory so that a small collection of clerks working in an old-fashioned government building can “recreate” it through the medium of cinema, allowing a departing soul to take refuge in a single memory preserved in eternity.

Heaven’s waiting room, as it turns out, is apparently located inside the ghost of the Japanese studio system. The recently deceased give their names at the door and patiently wait for their turn with their allotted case manager whose job it is to offer after life counselling designed to bring them to the point of boiling their existence down to the single moment which defines it within the arbitrary three day time limit which gives the crew the time to put their memories into pre-production complete with old-fashioned stage sets and studio-era special effects.

The purpose of all of this is not is exactly clear, though a clue is perhaps offered when we discover that the clerks are able to order VHS tapes of the entirety of their subjects’ lives in the event that they are struggling to think of relevant moments in an existence which seems to have disappointed them. The point is not so much the literal truth of the memory, be it accurate or not, but its sensation and the transience of feeling which is then re-experienced through the medium of cinema, captured in celluloid as momentary permanence.

Consequently, the chosen moments are necessarily often ones of stillness which promise the kind of peace and serenity one is supposed to find in death. The moments are ones of silent togetherness, of natural beauty, of childish innocence, or unbridled joy but is each is perhaps the key to unlocking the enigma of a life and as such is a solution which points towards a question. One older gentleman, Watanabe (Taketoshi Naito), finds himself unable to choose. He views his life as the epitome of mediocrity and can find nothing in it that seems worthy of “eternity”. Watching the videotapes of his life, he sees himself as a young man vowing to make a mark and is desperate to find some evidence that he lived but like many does not find it. His life was happy by virtue of being not unhappy for all that it was perhaps unfulfilled but only through communing with himself after death is he able to reclaim the memory of his late wife (Kyoko Kagawa) with whom he never quite bonded in mild jealousy of her lingering attachment to her first love who fell in war.

This being a film from 1998 and mostly featuring those in their ‘70s and above, the war looms large from painful battlefield memories of fear and starvation to unexpected reunions and the joy of simple pleasures found even in the midst of hardship. The clerks who died young may look on in envy of Watanabe’s “ordinary” life in the knowledge of all they were denied, while others mourn for a future they will never see. Yet there are shorter sad stories here too from a high school girl (Sayaka Yoshino) whose original choice of a day out at Disneyland is deemed too prosaic, to a middle-aged bar hostess (Kazuko Shirakawa) reminiscing about an old lover who let her down, and a rebellious young punk (Yusuke Iseya) who flat out refuses to choose because he feels that is the best way to accept responsibility. Forced into a reconsideration of his own life, even a clerk is eventually moved by the realisation that even if he had previously believed his existence devoid of meaningful moments he has achieved something by featuring in those of others and is therefore also a meaningful part of a considered whole.

Making the most of his documentary background, interspersing “genuine” memories among the imagined, Koreeda’s heavenly fantasy is one firmly tied to the ground where seasons still pass, time still flows, and the relentlessly efficient march of bureaucracy continues on apace undaunted by the presence of death. Death may give life meaning, but it’s living that’s the prize in all of its glorious complexity filled with both beauty and sadness but always with light even in the darkest corners.


After Life screened as part of an ongoing Koreeda retrospective currently running at BFI Southbank.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Power of Kangwon Province (강원도의 힘, Hong Sang-soo, 1998)

Power of Kangwon province posterTogether, but separate, could serve as a thematic guide to the work of Hong Sang-soo for whom time is malleable and place even more so. The Power of Kangwon Province (강원도의 힘, Gangwon-do ui him), his second feature, is as playful as one might expect, employing the dual structure familiar from Hong’s later work to set a pair of lovers against each other as they endure the same holiday without ever crossing paths in an attempt to forget their doomed romance.

Jisook (Oh Yun-hong) takes a train to the titular Kangwon province – a popular holiday destination just far enough from the city to make it an attractive place to bury one’s sorrows. Together (but sort of separate) with two university friends she wanders around doing all the regular tourist stuff. For some reason the girls attract the attention of a local policeman (Kim Yu-seok) who starts hanging out with them. Over a tense dinner, Ji-sook argues with her friend over her failed affair with a married man, after which she ends up in an odd encounter with the policeman who is also married.

Meanwhile, married professor Sangkwon (Baek Jong-hak) is in a state of lovelorn depression over the end of an affair with a much younger woman who he claims is the only one he’s ever truly loved. Underappreciated at his current place of work, he spends some time sucking up to his sumo-loving boss but eventually comes to the conclusion it’s all been pointless and he’s never going to get tenure from this rigid old man. Still, despite his wife’s encouragement, he drags his feet applying to another university and continues to mope. Relief comes when his friend (Chun Jae-hyun) invites to him Kangwon for a few days to forget his troubles, but time away only seems to reinforce his sense of emptiness and inability to let go of a lost love.

In truth, we have little implication that the stories of Jisook and Sangkwon are connected at all until they finally intersect save that their movements mirror each other as they each attempt to erase the memory of their failed romance through a sad vacation. Jisook and Sangkwon are on the same train, going to the same place, where they do very similar things but their paths do not cross again – they are out of step with one another, unable to repair the rhythm of their romance but bound by an awkward togetherness just the same.

Meanwhile, a dark spectre haunts them in the form of a mysterious woman and her “fall” from a cliff. Jisook’s disappointing relationship with the married policeman is at least a natural connection, however ill advised it may turn out to be, whereas Sangkwon spends his time irritatedly chasing a lonely woman who got fed up of waiting for him and later walked into the path of another jealous and impatient man. Though in no particular hurry, both Jisook and Sangkwon are constantly annoyed by being forced to waste time hanging around. Jisook’s ballistic attack on the policeman who arrived late to collect her on a return visit to Kangwon is probably misdirected anger at Sangkwon and the illicit nature of her visit, but Sangkwon’s is a kind of arrogance – as if he believes the world exists at his leisure and that he is free to put it down and pick it back up again at his own choosing. Jisook wouldn’t wait for him any longer, but Sangkwon can’t quite accept the relationship is over. He never truly considers abandoning his wife and family to pursue a supposedly “true” love, but won’t give up on the romantic ideal.

Hong positions both lovers as lost, chasing distant ghosts of each other through the spooky environs of the picturesque holiday town, attempting to bury their loneliness in other bodies but emerging with only sadness and resentment. Connection is fleeting, and perhaps unsatisfying in itself. The power of Kangwon province may lie in making a grave for the impossible dream of enduring of love. Jisook buries the smoking embers of her romance even whilst still alight, leaving Sangkwon sadly gazing into a goldfish bowl made for two but now home to only one. Destined never to understand each other, we are all trapped in our own fishbowls sadly gazing out at an incomprehensible world where the only reward of longing is existential sadness. Sound familiar?


The Power of Kangwon Province was screened as part of the 2018 London Korean Film Festival.

Home video release trailer (no subtitles)

Pornostar (ポルノスター, AKA Tokyo Rampage, Toshiaki Toyoda, 1998)

pornostarLooking back, at least to those of us of a certain age, the late ‘90s seem like a kind of golden era, largely free from the economic and political strife of the current world, but the cinema of that time is filled with the anxiety of the young – particularly in Japan, still mired in the wake of the post-bubble depression. Toshiaki Toyoda’s Pornostar (ポルノスター, retitled Tokyo Rampage for the US release) (not quite what it sounds like), is just such a story. Its protagonist, Arano (Chihara Junia, unnamed until the closing credits), stalks angrily through the busy city streets which remain as indifferent to him as he is to them. Though his wandering appears to have no especial purpose, Arano seethes with barely suppressed rage, nursing sharpened daggers waiting to plunge into the hearts of “unnecessary” yakuza.

After taking the early morning train into the city, the grey light of dawn gradually brightening as the streets fill with people busying themselves about their business, Arano walks around angrily bumping into anyone who happens to be in his path but nary a one of them even looks back at him before continuing onwards, zombie like, towards their destination. We then cut across town to another crossing where non-yakuza club boss Kamijo (Onimaru) also bumps into someone but stops to make sure the offending person realises the disrespect they’ve just shown him. The film will, in many ways, turn on the interaction of these two men who take a very different approach to a series of common problems. Anti-yakuza avenger meets anti-yakuza appeaser – their war will always be a zero sum game, but then, neither of them are very interested in winning it anyway.

If Arano and Kamijo represent the male forces of chaos and violence mixed with cowardice and self interest, the third axis turns on one of Kamijo’s escorts who is determined to travel to Fiji for “The Summer of Love” in 1999 (presumably the 30th anniversary celebration for a bygone era of hippiedom). Alice (Rin Ozawa) presents a possible point of departure for Arano as she temporarily takes charge, co-opting the boom box which is used to conceal the all important drugs and attempting to repurpose its darkness to find her own light only to crash and burn. The other female force in the film in a neat piece of symmetry mirroring the Arano/Kamijo dynamic is a destructive counter to Alice’s creative instincts. The unnamed woman mostly known for a tattoo across her chest which reads 5-Star Pussycat (Leona Hirota), acts like some kind of avenging angel with a purpose as unclear as Arano’s as she runs around the city taking out yakuza here, there, and everywhere.

The film’s title is, apparently, an obscure attempt at pairing the sleazy nature of the Shibuya environment with Arano’s oscillating, lonely planet existence. No reason is given for Arano’s intense loathing for yakuza whom he describes as “unnecessary” throughout the film (not unfairly, it has to be said), but vengeance seems to have become his entire reason for living. Allied with the knife in the film’s complex symbolic imagery, Arano becomes the personification of death, chaos, and violence as he almost ceases to exist as a person so turned inward and delusional has his mind become. Kamijo, by contrast, is a weaker figure yet no less linked with death through his constant references to his father’s grave. Given his close ties to his mother, it may be fairer to say that if Arano is a man already dead then Kamijo is one not yet born. Always on the threshold, Kamijo refuses the yakuza joining ceremony but continues to behave like a gangster even whilst rejecting the act of killing. Arano and Kamijo are locked in their perfect symmetry, a complementary pair forming one fully fleshed whole, but their union is inevitably a destructive one, unable to find a constructive purpose in their nihilistic world of violence and betrayal.

Similarly, Arano also rejects the possibility of salvation offered by Alice and her idealised Fijian paradise. Trying and failing to ride Alice’s skateboard even as she attempts to physically guide him, Arano cannot let go of his destructive cycle of violence in order to participate in her revolution of love, allowing her empty skateboard to roll away from them as symbol of their unattainable dreams. Alice may be the film’s only winner as, even if she too suffers and fails to break out of the constraining underworld environment, she remains free to fight for freedom, gliding away on her skateboard bound for love.

Though sometimes a little too obscure or displaying a slight incompleteness of thought, Pornostar is an accomplished narrative debut from Toyoda which addresses several of his ongoing concerns. Told with surrealist flair in its strange set pieces where knives fall from the sky or a girl dances madly in a dingy night club, Pornostar is a stylish piece marrying slo-motion and loud music with frenetic violence and the total absence of sound. A dispassionate tale of youth on fire but burning itself from the inside out, Pornostar is less a chronicle of its times than a lament for the aimlessness of the young, locked out of mainstream society and into a mind consuming itself through unresolved frustration.


Available now in the UK as part of Third Window Films’ Toshiaki Toyoda: The Early Years box set.

Opening scene (no subtitles)

Dr. Akagi (カンゾー先生, Shohei Imamura, 1998)

Dr AkagiA late career entry from socially minded director Shohei Imamura, Dr. Akagi (カンゾー先生, Kanzo Sensei) takes him back to the war years but perhaps to a slightly more bourgeois milieu than his previous work had hitherto focussed on. Based on the book by Ango Sakaguchi, Dr. Akagi is the story of one ordinary “family doctor” in the dying days of World War II.

As Dr. Akagi (Akira Emoto) puts it, much of the the life of a family doctor involves running. If he breaks one leg, he’ll run on the other, if he breaks both legs, he’ll run on his hands, but he’ll do whatever it takes to get to his patients. Some of the villagers have branded him as a quack and nicknamed him “Doctor Liver” because his most frequent diagnosis is for hepatitis. Doctor Akagi is convinced that there really is an epidemic of contagious hepatitis plaguing the population and even has the evidence to back his theory up but with the war in crisis and so much else going on he’s having trouble getting anyone to listen to him. Nevertheless, Akagi fearlessly tries to find out what it is that’s causing this deadly disease to spread and hopefully put an end to it for good.

Imamura strikes an oddly comic tone here. Though the above synopsis may sound overly serious, for the vast majority of its running time Dr. Akagi is the story of a small fishing village going about its everyday life with the war just simply background. The town narrowly escapes being bombed by an American raid because it’s known that there’s prisoner of war camp nearby filled with allied soldiers and red cross personnel and there are certainly a lot of troops on the ground more or less running the show. However, despite the obvious hardships – lack of food being the biggest one, the townspeople are getting on with things in a fairly cheerful way.

Following a spot of pastoral care, Dr. Akagi ends up taking in a local girl as his assistant and housekeeper after her father has died leaving her to support her two younger siblings. Though a married woman with a husband away at the front, Sonoko (Kumiko Aso) has been making ends meet through prostitution with the rather unwelcome result that one of her regular customers wants to marry her (she does not reciprocate and after all already has a husband). Akagi doesn’t necessarily disapprove of the idea of prostitution or of openly expressed sexuality, but accepts that society does object to these ideas and takes Sonoko in so that she won’t have to sell herself (though she actually didn’t really mind very much and still finds herself called upon to provide her “services” even after she’s officially given up).

Akagi’s other supporters include a fellow doctor, Tomomi, who has become addicted to morphine after his wartime service and a drunken and lecherous buddhist monk who proves an essential ally when it comes to body snatching a recently buried corpse. Akagi gets himself into even more trouble when he takes in and treats an escaped Dutch POW who bears the scars of extreme torture by Japanese forces who are paranoid about possible spy action. Imamura is never afraid of raising the spectre of wartime brutality as his soldiers flit between righteous zealots committed to the letter of the law and bumbling idiots who can’t see that each of their actions is entirely counterproductive to their cause.

The most surprising moment comes when Akagi has a dream about his son who is an army doctor serving in Manchuria. After Akagi and his friend have conducted an autopsy to gain a fresh liver sample, Tomomi starts talking about his time in the army and a rumour about a group of doctors doing live dissections and possibly researching chemical weapons. Akagi is aghast and horrified but recounts his dream in which he stood before his son whose bloodied hands are extended towards him with a living patient writhing below. Akagi reminds him that he is a doctor and urges him to stop this barbaric practice but the nightmarish vision of this gloomy, blood-soaked room persists.

At the end of the film Sonoko and Akagi unwittingly end up viewing the giant mushroom cloud which arises after the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima. Not knowing what it is, Akagi predictably sees it as a giant infected liver and wonders if the donor for his liver sample is angry with him but then thinks again and says the cloud is a representation of everybody’s anger towards this war. Akagi loses himself a little in the quest to solve the hepatitis question and after it leads him to neglect a patient he begins to question himself over his true motives and whether there’s really any point to what he’s trying to do. However, Dr. Akagi is a good and a kind man and eventually remembers what his true calling is – as a family doctor, running from one emergency to the next but always making sure his patients are well looked after. War or no war, life goes on – people get sick and they need to know there are men like Akagi out there that can always be relied upon to do the very best they can.


Dr. Akagi was originally released in the US by Kino Lorber but seems to be out of print. The good news is that the region free Korean disc comes with English subtitles.

Unsubbed trailer: