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)

Monday (マンデイ, SABU, 2000)

mondayWaking up in an unfamiliar hotel room can be a traumatic and confusing experience. The hero of SABU’s madcap amnesia sit in odyssey finds himself in just this position though he is, at least, fully clothed even if trying to think through the fog of a particularly opaque booze cloud. Monday (マンデイ) is film about Saturday night, not just literally but mentally – about a man meeting his internal Saturday night in which he suddenly lets loose with all that built up tension in an unexpected, and very unwelcome, way.

Mild mannered salaryman Takagi (Shinichi Tsutsumi) wakes up in his cheap hotel room dressed in a pitch black suit and with no recollection of how he got there. A packet of purification salt reminds him he was going to a funeral, but what happened after that? Takagi, it seems, enjoys a drink or two to ease that ever present sense of dread and impotence which dominates his life and so the events of the previous two days are lost in that pale space obscured by a booze drenched curtain of brain fog. Spotting various reminders hidden in his room Takagi begins to piece his strange adventure together from a bad date with the girlfriend whose birthday he blew off to go to the funeral, to a weird fortune teller, a beautiful woman, guns, gangsters and a homicidal killing spree. All in all, perhaps it was better when he couldn’t remember.

As usual, SABU weaves his complex comedy into a complicated cycle of interconnected gags. Takagi remains within the purgatory of his hotel room, furiously trying to remember how he got there but this otherwise anodyne space seems to be a reflection of his everyday persona in its inoffensive blandness, littered as it is with indications of the deeper layers implied by the still unknown actions of the previous few days. Judging by his appearance, Takagi is a shy, nervous man hidden behind his unstylish glasses and neatly swept back hair. Fearing his adventures are about to signal the end of his existence, Takagi suddenly gets the inspiration to make a proper will/suicide note which largely consists of a number of apologies firstly to his parents and siblings and finally to the girlfriend who walked out on him in the bar owing to his failure to appear for her birthday celebration and subsequently bizarre behaviour. The second portion of the letter also includes some advice to his siblings about how to look after the family pets and some horticultural tips but as he takes a few more drinks to steady his nerves, those deeper layers start to bleed through and so he takes this opportunity to advise his girlfriend that she should work on her anger issues and also avoid finishing other people’s sentences for them.

In Takagi’s defense, he has had a strange few days. The funeral of a close friend, especially one so young, might be enough to tip anyone into a spot of drunken introspection but the send off for former hair model Mitsuo (Masanobu Ando) is hardly a typical one given that it ends with the corpse exploding after Takagi is asked and then fails to “defuse” it. When he should probably take the opportunity to talk to someone about the things which are bothering him, Takagi has another drink, does his strange little laugh, and internalises his irritation with the very people who might be able to help him. Retreating to the bathroom carrying the memory of a stunning woman spotted at the bar with him, he returns to find a gloomy yakuza sitting in the adjacent seat intent on drinking and talking. Rather than saying a flat no and going home like a sensible person, Takagi keeps drinking until he feels like partying with the most dangerous guys in the room, even going so far as a raunchy dance with the gangster’s girl. The gangster, strangely, doesn’t mind and even seems to think he’s found a cool new friend but when everyone’s this drunk and there are guns around nothing is going to end well.

The finale finds SABU at his most sarcastic as the imprisoned Takagi indulges in a hero fantasy of taking the cops hostage and heading outside to meet the forces of authority head on only to give them a lecture about the danger of firearms and the necessity of love and kindness in a strange world. Needless to say, his message of peace is not universally well received. Takagi might have a point when he says that none of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for the shotgun – such a powerful and easy to use weapon in the hands of those who previously felt so powerless can indeed be a dangerous thing, but the fact remains that he harboured all of this fear and resentment inside himself, attempting to drown it with booze but continually failing. We leave Takagi trapped inside the hotel room, as he’s always been trapped inside his mind, holding a possibly empty shotgun at a flimsy hotel room door with all of that pressure pushing down outside it. The gun is one thing, and guns are bad, but the enemy will always be Monday – the modern world is driving people crazy and could use some of that love and kindness Takagi was so keen on during his hostage crisis but it probably won’t work until he puts the gun (and the booze) down and opens that hotel room door.


Original trailer (no subtitles)