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)

Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (書を捨てよ町へ出よう, Shuji Terayama, 1971)

throw away your booksCaught in a moment of transition in more ways than one, Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets (書を捨てよ町へ出よう, Sho o Suteyo Machi e Deyo) is a clarion call to apathetic youth in the dying days of ‘60s youthful rebellion. Neatly bridging the gap between post-war avant-garde and the punk cinema of the ‘70s and ‘80s, Terayama experiments gleefully with a psychedelic, surreal rock musical which is first and foremost a sensory rather than a cerebral experience.

The film opens with an uncomfortably long black screen which has a subtle soundscape running behind it. Just when you begin to think there’s something wrong with the video, a young man dressed in a trench coat (collar turned up) appears and berates our idiocy for haven fallen for the trick. What are we doing here, sitting in a dark room waiting for something to happen when the real action is, and always has been, out in the streets? We’re trapped in here – we’re the ones inside the screen, the boy is free to smoke and we are free only to watch him do it.

It becomes clear that we are also trapped within the realm of his unrealisable dreams. He worked at a factory but he didn’t like it so he quit. He wanted to be a boxer but it frightened him so he gave up. He hears a story of a Korean boy who built a glider and tried to fly home on his own only to crash somewhere over the ocean. He envies the moments of blue skies the Korean boy flew through as the brief fulfilment of a dream. From this point on he builds a glider in his mind but is perpetually unable to launch finally seeing it too go up in flames.

The boy says he comes from a dead end place where he lives with his unemployed father, needy grandmother and younger sister whose attachment to her pet rabbit is beginning to raise eyebrows. He finds another outlet for his youthful masculinity in the local football team (football is the most manly because the ball is bigger) where an older brother substitute tries to introduce him to the better things in life including sending him to a local prostitute to “make him a man” and teaching him about “sophisticated” western dining and marxist discourse. Throughout all of this the boy remains alone, perpetually observing from the outside but never successfully finding his way in. There’s a repeated riddle – what has one way in and two ways out? We expect an answer that carries some profound weight about the nature of human existence but, no, after all it’s just a pair of trousers.

Terayama travels from black to white – beginning with the bleak opening which is all darkness and silence, he takes us to an ending of blinding white light and the eclipse that will come to us all. The boy tells us the the film will be over soon and no one will remember him – that’s all that’s left to show, a blank white screen and the images of men who will shortly disappear. However, this is not the end though we see the white screen interrupt us a few more times, the boy has another monologue in which he tells us how the film has consumed him so that the lines between reality and fantasy have become indistinguishable. The film crew have become his family, the actor playing his father is, in a sense, his father, the 28 day shoot has become an entire universe which lives and dies inside the film. A film is something which only lives in the dark, when we flick on the lights, the magic is broken and it dies.

The boy says he loved this world but does not love the cinema yet the film is rife with cinematic references and Terayama is always careful to remind us we’re watching a film by deliberately making us aware of the camera. He calls out Polanski, Oshima, and Antonioni by name and even sings a love song to Ken Takakura as well as pledging his devotion to female leading yakuza actress Junko Fuji. Yet the world of the film is totally its own encompassing proto-punk rock songs, surrealistic imagery and inserted street art quoting artists and dreamers including the Russian futurist poet Mayakovsky. As in his other work Terayama also employs Godard style colour filters from the violent green of the boy’s family life to the standard colouring of the football club and the purple tinged insert scene in which a group of hopefuls read out classified ads featuring men seeking men, missing wives and mothers, and finally a couple of obvious scams.

Way ahead of its time and successfully anticipating the anarchic pop-punk movement which was to come some years later Terayama’s youthful masterpiece remains one of the most important if inscrutable films of the era. Sadly, Terayama died at the young age of 47 in 1983 walking into his own blank white screen but even in this first feature length effort he imprinted all the pain and rage of his times into a story of a young man lost and confused in the modern consumerist era. It calls on youth to awaken, go out into the streets and do something, anything, but also has little faith that it will. We’ll go on watching Ken Takakura to feel like a tough guy before going back to being vaguely disappointed with our circumstances but doing nothing much of anything at all about it. We too, live only in the film, inside the dream, until the screen burns white and our dreams dissolve with it.


This trailer was created for a specific film screening (The North Star Ballroom is where the screening took place) but does have subtitles. It’s a little NSFW though, be warned.