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 Scythian Lamb (羊の木, Daihachi Yoshida, 2017)

Scythian Lamb posterSometimes life hands you two parallel crises and allows one to become the solution to the other. So it is for the bureaucrats at the centre of Daihachi Yoshida’s The Scythian Lamb (羊の木, Hitsuji no Ki). The prisons are overcrowded while rural Japan faces extinction thanks to depopulation. Ergo, why not parole some of those “low risk” prisoners whose problems have perhaps been caused by urban living and lack of community support on the condition that they move to the country for a period of at least ten years and contribute to a traditional way of life. The prisoners get a fresh start where no one knows them or what they might have done in the past, and the town gets an influx of new, dynamic energy eager to make a real go of things. Of course, there might be some resistance if people knew their town was effectively importing criminality, but that’s a prejudice everyone has an interest in resisting so the project will operate in total secrecy.

Not even civil servant Tsukisue (Ryo Nishikido), who has been tasked with rounding up the new recruits, was aware of their previous place of residence until he started to wonder why they were all so unusual and evasive. Tsukisue likes to think of himself as an open-minded, kind and supportive person, and so is disappointed in himself to feel some resistance to the idea of suddenly welcoming six convicts into his quiet little town, especially on learning that despite being rated “low risk” they are each convicted murderers. Thus when a “murder” suddenly happens in the middle of town, Tsukisue can’t help drawing the “obvious” conclusion even if he hates himself for it afterwards when it is revealed the murder wasn’t a murder at all but a stupid drunken accident.

The ex-cons themselves are an eccentric collection of wounded people, changed both by their crimes and their experiences inside. Many inmates released from prison find it difficult to reintegrate into society, especially as most firms will not hire people with criminal records which is one of the many reasons no one is to know where the new residents came from. Yet, there are kind and understanding people who are willing to look past the unfortunate circumstances that led to someone finding themselves convicted of a crime such as the barber (Yuji Nakamura) who reveals his own difficult past and happiness in being able to help someone else, or the woman from the dry cleaners (Tamae Ando) who is upset by other people’s reaction to her new recruit who, it has to be said, looks like something out of Battles without Honour. Tsukisue doesn’t know anything about these people save for the fact they’ve killed and has, unavoidably, made a judgement based on that fact without the full details, little knowing that one, for example, killed her abusive boyfriend after years of torture or that another’s crime was more accident than design.

Tsukisue later becomes friends with one of the convicts, Miyakoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda), whose distant yet penetrating stare makes him a rather strange presence. Miyakoshi is the happiest to find himself living in the small coastal town, enjoying the lack of stimulation rather than resenting the boredom as some of the other new residents do. Despite his obvious inability to “read the air”, Miyakoshi is quite touched by Tsukisue’s kindness and by the way he treated him as a “normal” person despite his violent criminal past, excited to have made a real “friend” at last. Trouble begins to brew when Miyakoshi joins Tsukisue’s garage band and takes a liking to another of its members – Aya (Fumino Kimura), another returnee from Tokyo with a mysterious past though this time without a prison background. Tsukisue has had a long standing crush on Aya since high school but has always been too shy to say anything. He thought now was his chance and is stunned and irritated to realise Miyakoshi might have beaten him to it and, even worse, given him another opportunity to disappoint himself though doing something unforgivable in a moment of pique.

The bureaucrat in charge of the scheme wanted it kept secret in part because he was afraid the criminals might find each other and start some sort of secret murderer’s club (betraying another kind of prejudice) which actually turns out not to be so far fetched, though the main moral of the story is that kindness, understanding, and emotional support go a long way towards keeping the peace. Meanwhile, another of the convicts has taken to “planting” dead animals inspired by a plate she finds on a refuse site featuring a decoration of a “Scythian Lamb” – a plant that grows sheep which die when severed from their roots, and the evil fish god Nororo sits atop the cliffs in reminder of the perils of the sea. The Scythian Lamb is a poignant exploration of the right to start again no matter what might have gone before or how old you are. It might not always be possible to escape the past, and for some it may be more difficult than others, but the plant withers off the vine and there’s nothing like good roots for ensuring its survival.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Like Grains of Sand (渚のシンドバッド, Ryosuke Hashiguchi, 1995)

Like grains of sand posterAdolescent romance is complicated enough at the best of times but the barriers are ever higher if you happen to be gay in a less than tolerant society. Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s second feature Like Grains of Sand (渚のシンドバッド, Nagisa no Sinbad) takes a slight step back in time from A Touch of Fever but retains its very ordinary world as a collection of boys and girls embark on a process of self discovery whilst also locked into the unbreakable straightjacket of the high school world.

Ito (Yoshinori Okada) is an ordinary high school boy with a crush on his oblivious best friend, Yoshida (Kouta Kusano). Though Yoshida defends him from the homophobic bullies in his class, he seems confused about his true feelings, at once stating that what he feels for Ito is more that friendship but also unwilling to address what that “more” may mean. After Ito’s father intercepts a reply to a personal ad he placed hoping to meet older men, Ito ends up at a psychiatrist’s office where his father hopes he might be “cured” though the doctor is quick to point out that they no longer view homosexuality as a medical matter.

Whilst at the clinic, Ito strikes a up a friendship with another girl from his class, Aihara (Ayumi Hamasaki) – a recent transfer student, who, we learn, has experienced a traumatic event which is also the reason she had to leave her previous place of education. Aihara is the only person with whom Ito can discuss his sexuality honestly though he’s also sure to “protect” Yoshida by claiming he rejected his advances outright rather than explaining the confusing series of events as they actually occurred. When Aihara and Ito accidentally end up on an awkward double date with Yoshida and his girlfriend Shimizu (Kumi Takada), Yoshida also begins to develop an (unreturned) attraction to Aihara which only further complicates the delicate nature of the growing emotional ties among this small group of young people.

A real step up from the promising yet flawed A Touch of Fever, Like Grains of Sand proves Hashiguchi’s skill in building an extremely natural environment filled with believable well rounded characters. The high school world is a cruel one populated by unsteady teenagers, each by times rebellious and insecure. Aihara, as a recent transfer student, is already an outsider but finds herself excluded even further thanks to her direct and aloof character. Early on in the film two of the other girls, evidently the popular set, begin running a bizarre extortion scam in which they claim a friend of theirs has fallen pregnant and needs to get an abortion right away so they’re collecting money to help her. Shimizu doesn’t seem to buy their explanation but is bamboozled into paying up to not cause offence. Aihara, however, brands the pair “sympathy fascists” and abruptly walks away.

Ito is also an outsider, though partially a self-exile, longing yet fearful. At the beginning of the film he’s overwhelmed watching the unexpectedly sensual action of Yoshida pouring a bag of sand into a container destined for the sports field. After they’ve finished, Ito faints right in front of his fellow schoolmates, though at least the convenient hot weather might prove his ally. When the other boys draw a lewd drawing on the blackboard and start teasing Ito, Yoshida comes to his rescue even though he knows that’s likely to cause trouble for himself. Reassuring his friend that it would be OK even if it was true, Yoshida continues to act in a non committal manner. Ito confesses, Yoshida accepts the confession but at the same time is uncertain permitting both a kiss and an embrace before pushing his friend away and leaving as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

After an impromptu hug on a rooftop, Shimizu makes attempt to ask Aihara is she’s gay with no particular judgement attached except a slight reticence in terms of language. Aihara seems slightly confused, replying only that Shimizu is preoccupied with the wrong questions. Later, Ito ends up escorting the smitten Yoshida to Aihara’s childhood home where things come to a climax during an intense finale on a secluded beach. Night is falling and Ito has put on Aihara’s white dress and hat while she goes for a swim just as Yoshida returns for a second stab at confessions. Hiding behind a rock while Yoshida thinks Ito is her, Aihara continues to conduct a philosophically based dissection of Yoshida’s approach to sexuality. She asks him, would you still love me if I were a man, and if not, is it more that what you want is a woman and not really “me” at all, along with other questions designed to prompt a response as to the importance of gender when it comes to love. That all this happens as a kind of Cyrano de Bergerac-like three way sequence with Ito dressed as Aihara, and Yoshida talking to Aihara through someone else only lends to the surreal, increasingly symbolic atmosphere.

Gentle and softly nuanced, Like Grains of Sand is a delicate exploration of ordinary young people caught in a confusing storm of emotions as they each address their burgeoning sexuality. Rich with complexity yet also effortlessly straightforward, Hashiguchi has created a beautifully naturalistic portrait of adolescence in flux which is filled with empathy and acceptance for each of its angst ridden teens and even for their less forgiving friends and relatives. A noticeable progression from Touch of Fever, Like Grains of Sand further proves Hashiguchi’s skill for character drama and marks him as one of the most incisive writer/directors working today.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

The Japanese title of the film, Nagisa no Sinbad, is also the title of a hit single by 1970s super duo Pink Lady! (Beware – extremely catchy)