Having looked at Kore-eda’s (K-E) exploration of some aspects of memories in After Life (1998) I am left with an insatiable need to investigate the content of these memories. It is a difficult task to unravel the documentary from the invented in this complex film. The reviews on the whole have not helped me to get to what I am looking for. Ebert says that the director interviewed ‘hundreds’ of people, (Garcia claims 500) but that some interviews were scripted. I need to go back to the interviews of K-E to get to understand what he tried to achieve in this mixture of documentary and invention and try to isolate threads of social realism.
To Peter Bradshaw when asked how he reacts when compared to Ozu: I try to say thank you. But I think that my work is more like Mikio Naruse – and Ken Loach.
To Jonathan Romney in the Guardian: It is that in the East we’re not familiar with the idea of judgement after death – I wanted to reflect that…
It seems to me that in the film young Iseya reflects the director’s voice. He is excited by the fact that people are not judged after death, he is critical of having to choose only one memory to take to eternity and question the truth of memories. He expresses the thought that films reveal more truth than memories. The whole set-up is wrong because one makes the past for one’s own needs….Say I construct the future I am making a film about it. As I imagine all kinds of situations, I think that what I create would feel more real than some memory.
Also K-E in a Guardian interview declares: If you can’t choose, it means that you are still alive. Choose, and you’re dead. Iseya says: not choosing is that you take responsibility for your life. And also Watanabe: it comes to me that not choosing might be one way of taking responsibility.
I will leave aside the above complex questions about the initial premise of the film of choosing one memory to take to eternity, the way it compels the viewer to engage personally with the film and the relationships between reality and fiction. I will also ignore the cinematography that makes the film eminently watchable and transports it into fantasy. I will concentrate on the elements of social comments and relationships.
There are many references to sex in the film. At the beginning of two of the weeks two helpers on their way to work talk about their job. (Only their feet climbing stairs are shown.)
First Monday: This old man Yamada, all he talks about is sex …. Three days of that stuff , give me a break…He spent the three days talking about sex and finally chose a holiday with his wife .
Second Monday: This old man Shioda after all that talk, talk, talk, about all these women chose his daughter’s wedding when she’s handing her parents the bouquet.
Shioda talks at length about the way to obtain the good looking women in a brothel. But he also talked about a prostitute who prepared for him a restoring porridge when he was ill: one remembers such a woman .
Advice to the young female helper: After all that time I spent with him. All that talk was just embarrassment. When old guys like that get assigned a young woman they go on about sex.The trick is to never get embarrassed.
Here we have a comments on women’s view of sex. When you have been treated so badly you swear there will never be another man again. I swore I would not but then someone is kind to you … He was not the kind of man who only remember his own needs. She then invents a wonderful time together only to admit under questioning: The truth is he never showed up .
Child Abuse?: Not enunciated but clear enough. Say I chose a memory from 8/10 years old. Then I’ll only remember how I felt back then…I’ll be able to forget everything else? …Is that true? you can forget … Well then that really is heaven.
Round the table staff meeting: He chose a memory of when he was five of his secret hideaway filled with junk. He wanted to choose the darkness. He must be burdened with a past that the cannot talk about to anyone.
Absent father: The reference to an absent father is less obvious but can be inferred. After the teenager talks to Shiori about her recollections of having her head on her mother’s lap for ear cleaning, she asks if Shiori has similar memories. It is difficult to determine whether Shiori’s response is invented or a memory: I remember how my father’s back felt so broad and firm and the smell of his sweatband and how his hair tonic smelled. But at the staff meeting she storms out of the room when remonstrated: How did your parents raise you exactly? She replies: like your daughter, that’s what happens when you don’t know your dad.
Ageing : One of the old women seems very confused. Her memories are all mixed up in time and place involving love of her brother, dance halls, dancing, red dresses, red rice, ice cream and chicken.
Nishimura the older person: She presents another view of old age. On the strength of Kore-eda’s father having suffered dementia, commentators often describe her as being demented. In the staff meeting: It seems Nishimura san already chose her memories while she was still alive…she lives in her memories from being nine. She appears to me at peace with herself. She stands at the window listening to birdsong and comments : In the spring time it must beautiful here. Do the cherry trees blossom?
Bent double she collects dead leaves, seeds and little stones that she arranges carefully on the interview table. (Is this different from the artist Tacita Dean’s exhibits of her collection of leaves and stones?). She respond by an imperceptible nod that she has no children. She offers her helper the contents of her plastic bag with a smile.
Dementia or at peace with the past and living with nature in the present?
Food as comfort: As I remarked in my first blog on this multi themes film the interviews of a variety of people in the first hour give the film a realist feel. Main public events: the war, a major earthquake both are associated with comforting food. The mother making rice balls in the grove after the earthquake is referred to both in the telling and the reenactment when the staff participate in the food preparing. The account of the enemy American soldiers giving food to the captive starving Japanese soldier is detailed. There is a long discourse on the cooking of rice porridge cooked specially by the prostitute for her ailing client. However in the second part of the film we see Watanabe watching one of the videos of his life. He is sitting down absorbed in reading and moving papers without even glancing at his wife while she serves him a meal. Considering the other representations of food as social interaction this clearly shows the indifference of Watanabe to his wife.
Finally a few of the people interviewed remember their early years showing the interest of K-E in family and children as demonstrated in My Little Sister and After the Storm and others.
The settings, mise-en-scene, and editing permit a move to the fantasy second part of the film and a narrative. There are re-creation of the memories, the projection in a cinema and consequent disappearing people. K-E also introduces the reflections on different points of view: how beautiful the moon is tonight. The moon is fascinating isn’t it?. Its shape never changes yet it looked different depending on the angle of the light.
The narrative adds another layer. The young Shiori is in love with her fellow worker Mochizuki killed in the war. While watching Watanabe’s life tape Mochizuki discovers that the latter had married Kyoko his fiancée.
There is no unpleasant confrontation between Kyoko’s two partners. In a letter before he disappears having choosen a memory Watanabe thanks Mochizuki for not discussing Kyoko with him. Mochizuki confesses to Shiori that this was not generosity but that it was too painful. Shiori helps him to find the memory that Kyoko chose and it happens to be when she was sitting on a bench with him (beautiful photo of a young woman and man in uniform): I looked desperately inside myself for any memory of happiness, now 50 years later, I’ve learnt I was part of somebody else’s memory. What a wonderful thing.
But now that Mochizuki has decided to choose a memory to take to eternity and leave. Shiori is very hurt at being abandoned and especially at being forgotten.
A very inventive K-E offers the viewer a feel good ending. Mochizuki ask for an exception to the rules of the choice. He chooses the time being spent at the centre as his memory thus including not only Shiori but also the tapes of him with his fiancée before his death.
I have tried to explore why I found the film so intriguing. Like everybody I know who has seen the film, like the reviewers I was compelled to think about the only memory I would take for eternity.
I have tried to disentangle some threads in the films and only succeeded in touching part of its social realism, spurred by K-E desire to be compared to Loach. There is so much more to explore and unless I have missed any academic work on the film, I am surprised that the film is not considered as a masterpiece.
I was really interested in having people think about what memories mean to us, how people share memories, or the joy you can discover by finding yourself in the fragments of someone else’s memory. K-E