Wednesday, November 4, 2009


A strange film that I just recently viewed is After Life--perhaps puzzling would be a better term. It's a quiet film, a Japanese production, with no car chases or shootouts or violence of any kind. I'm still not sure what to make of it, but it definitely is staying with me. The Japanese title is Wandafuru raifu, which, translated, means "wonderful life." Perhaps the one who selected the English title didn't want viewers to confuse it with It's A Wonderful Life, the Christmas standby with Jimmy Stewart. Hirokazu Koreeda both wrote and directed the film which came out in 1998.

The premise is simple: after death, people go to a way station where they will spend a week. During the first three days, they go over their memories and decide which one memory they will keep to remember for all eternity. They will forget everything else, except for that one chosen memory. The following day or so is spent with the stage crew creating the scenery for the filming of the re-enactment of that memory. On the last day, they will view the film made of that re-enactment and leave immediately for wherever it is they will go, sans all memories except for that one.

The film opens with a bright white light-filled archway, which reminded me of many accounts given by people who had experienced a "near death experience" (NDE). The people emerge from the archway and report in at a desk. They are directed to a large room, and there are told what the schedule will be for the coming week. The new arrivals are assigned to a counselor who will help them decide on the memory they will choose and also work on getting as many of the details of that particular memory.

The style suggests a documentary about this particular way station and a group of people who just happen to be there at that time. The counselors are young men, in their twenties with perhaps one in his early thirties. That this is an all male staff of counselors appears to be an accident, for the counselor trainee is a young woman who is promoted to counselor at the end. The Boss is an older man.

The film follows the group of new arrivals as they attempt to decide which one memory they will choose. We see interactions among them as well as their sessions with their counselors. There are also flashbacks in some cases. In fact one man doesn't believe he has any happy memories, so, to aid him, he is given tapes of his life, one tape for every year of his life.

We also see the counselors "off duty" as they interact among themselves, for these are not angels or spirits but human beings, with all the faults of human beings. The counselors are those who have died and either could not or would not choose one memory. As a result, they must stay on as counselors until they themselves are ready to choose.

The way station appears to be a dilapidated school building, and all are wearing street clothing. It appears to be simply a group of people engaged in normal everyday activities. The only deviation from the mundane ordinariness of life is the light-filled archway they all come through.

One point I found puzzling was the ages of the counselors and the new arrivals. The ages of the new arrivals ranged from around 15 or 16 to at least 70 and possibly older. There were no children. Perhaps it was just coincidence that this group had no children in it. As I mentioned before, the counselors all seemed to be in their 20s. Was this also a coincidence or is the director suggesting that people in this age bracket have more difficulties choosing than those younger or older than them? One of the new arrivals simply refused to make a choice, saying he wanted to accept responsibility for his whole life, not just one small part of it. And, his counselor then told him that that's why he was a counselor, for he also refused to choose one memory.

Overall Rating: It's back in my queue, for I want to see it again, sometime in the near future, after I've thought about it for awhile.


  1. This film sounds intriguing. It does pose an interesting question: what memory would I chose? Have you thought about the memory you'd pick for yourself? I think I'd need a life replay - there's lot's I've forgotten!

  2. Cheryl,

    I read somewhere that happiness is good health and a bad memory.

    I think I would choose the time I was in Rocky Mountain Park. I was driving along up above the tree level and there was still snow on the ground. I was winding along on top of the world circling peaks and looking down on the gorges hundreds? thousands? of feet below.

    I had a tape of Beethoven's 6th Symphony (the Pastoral) playing, purely by accident. The music and the winding road up near the top of the peaks just meshed so well, that I was just...Can't describe it.

    The next day I went back, but I couldn't get that same feeling.

    What kind of eternity is suggested by this movie? It's one of several questions raised by the film.

  3. Fred,

    I know EXACTLY what you're talking about, because I've experienced it myself. In 2007 I was undergoing treatment for breast cancer while at the same time preparing to move to Georgia from Pennsylvania. ( My husband had been transferred just before my diagnosis.) I remember lying on the radiation treatment table: bald from chemo, sad, and stressed. The technicians would put on music for the patients, and as my treatment started, Van Morrison's "Tupelo Honey" randomly came on. It felt like a sweetness ( no pun intended) filled my soul for 7 minutes. As you said, it's hard to describe. It totally changed my attitude, and life seemed more doable after that. So, maybe that's what I'd pick for my "single memory".

  4. Cheryl,

    They come at the strangest times and unfortunately unrepeatable. The closest I ever go to finding a "formala" was the two following incidents.

    Both happened while I was driving and both involved the Grand Canyon--once while driving the East Rim Road in the Canyon and once on my way back from another trip to the Canyon.

    Neither incident actually involved seeing the Canyon.

    I wonder if I will ever get a fourth.

  5. I've been trying to find this film to watch, and have had no luck. It's not online anywhere, and it can't be rented at my area video stores. It can't even be purchased, unless I want a used DVD that's pretty expensive. The only place I can find it are on Netflix or Blockbuster's mail DVD service.

    I did manage to stumble upon something interesting online. It appears there is an opera based upon this film. Here's a link to it:

  6. Cheryl,

    I got the DVD from netflix.

    An opera? I hadn't heard that. Thanks for the information. I'll take a look at it.

  7. Well, I FINALLY got to see this film, thanks to an inter-library loan. It's very quiet and understated, which I don't know if it's a cultural thing or just the tone they were aiming for. I thought it was more about memories than about an afterlife. Alot of interesting ideas were brought up, such as choosing one memory to keep, and what's the earliest memory you have. I'm glad I saw it, but I don't know if I'd give it a second viewing.

  8. Cheryl,

    Yes, it definitely was a quiet, understated film. Everybody seemed to take so calmly the fact that they had died. I don't remember much discussion at all about their deaths, and I don't think I actually know how any of them died.

    It definitely was much more about memories than about what lies ahead. That surprised me for I thought that they would be more interested in what was coming and less in what had happened. Of course, the focus was on the past, but I still thought there would be more speculation about the future.

    I have it in my Netflix queue again for another viewing.