After Life as a Study on the Line between Fiction and Documentary
Kore-eda Hirokazu had originally intended to be a novelist, but soon found out that his career would be in filmmaking. Having found that the Japanese movie industry was too difficult to break into as a director since studios were hiring less assistant directors than in previous decades, he was forced to become a director for television documentaries. This experience permanently effected his artistic vision, and when he finally did enter the fiction filmmaking world in 1995 with Maborosi, he already knew that he was “strongly interested in the line between fiction and documentary, between real and unreal” (Richie 246).
Although Kore-eda touches on this line between real and unreal in Maborosi since it explores the surreality of Yumiko’s first husband committing suicide seemingly out of nowhere, his second film, After Life, illustrates a setting in which one foot is firmly planted in both reality and unreality the entire time. The film shows one vision of the gray area between life and eternity. Instead of going straight to their afterlife, characters enter a kind of limbo where they must select one memory to hold and cherish for all of eternity. They will forget everything else. Those who cannot pick a memory because they believe they have unfinished business on earth, as well as those who simply refuse to pick, must work as employees at the office in order to help others select their memories. At first, this may seem more unreal than real, but no God figure ever appears. In fact, the world in the movie looks basically just like the mortal world, including seasonal change. The most “magical” event of the film comes at the end, when the characters passing onto the next life disappear directly after watching the short reenactment film about their memories. The dead star in these films which are cast and produced by the employees, who like any other filmmaking crew, must spend time conducting research, building sets, and recording footage until they believe their product is satisfactory.
Although known for his achievements as a director of the postmodern genre, Kore’eda incorporates some traditional Japanese filmmaking aspects in his work, most noticeably taking an interest in Ozu. Richie writes that in Maborosi, “Kore’eda’s camera wants, just like Ozu’s, for people to leave the room before it shows us the next scene” (244). The camera does indeed linger in rooms and hallways until, and sometimes slightly after, characters depart from the screen. One example of this comes in the opening scene, wherein Yumiko’s grandmother wanders out of a dark alley toward the bright light outside. Anticipating her imminent death, she wobbles toward the town of her birth. Keeping his camera still in the alley, Kore-eda allows the grandmother to totter off into the light out and out of the screen, holds the shot with an empty alley for one second, and then Yumiko turns a corner and runs down the alley after her grandmother. This act of recording characters’ departure from rooms, however, does not remain constant for all of his movies.
After Life does exhibit shades of Ozu, but not typically by watching characters leave rooms. Watching it, one can understand a sense of dailiness even in the world of limbo which ought to not be an ordinary place at all. Nevertheless, we see the employees coming to work and starting in on a fresh batch of dead souls. We see one character take a bath; we see the deceased newcomers recounting very ordinary-sounding memories of dancing, eating, and going on dates; we see the employees complaining about their assignments while on the job. Even in depicting a world very outside the grounds of reality, Kore-eda manages to “[display] an unblinking attention to detail – no matter how ordinary” (Cacoulidis). While other directors – particularly ones from Hollywood – may have been more interested in the fantasy element of portraying limbo, Kore’eda shows how it could be almost as structured, repetitive, and simple as earth. In this act of showing the beginning of two different weeks of work for the employees in limbo, where we discover that every work week is structured more or less the same, Kore-eda resembles Ozu. Much like how Ozu showed the boys in Ohayo walking past the same hills and landmarks on the way to school every day, Kore-eda uses the same handheld camera shot at the beginning of both Mondays of the film. This repeating shot shows a medium-closeup of the back of two characters’ legs as they walk up the steps to their office. The camera follows their entrance to work rather shakily, showing Kore-eda’s lack of concern for highly polished and smooth filmmaking and preference for a style that he believes feels truthful and authentic to the people who watch it. The opening sequence of the film works like so:
o Two men wearing black shoes and pants walk up a flight of steps while talking about a sex-obsessed old man whose case one of them took the previous week. Although we hear them talk loud and clear, we do not see their faces. We can only see the gray stone steps and their legs. The camera is clearly handheld since it jerks freely in order to follow the men’s footsteps.
o Kore-eda cuts to the hallway – an Ozu motif – that the men must walk down to go to their office. It shows them head-on this time instead of only showing their legs and sometimes lower torso.
o At 0:00:42, the camera stops leading the pair and instead goes behind their backs as they enter their office.
o 0:00:49: The camera pans right and shows a different man bending over.
o 0:00:52: The camera pans back to the left and shows the two men from Shot 1 taking off their jackets.
o The handheld camera moves left at 00:01:02, pans right at 00:01:10, moves forward toward a woman sweeping the office floor, pans right at 00:01:13 as the employees greet each other with “Good mornings.” At the same time, an older man – the director – enters the room and moves from screen right to screen left.
o The camera moves left with the director at 00:01:18. He speaks at 00:01:22, and the camera keeps him in the frame but wavers somewhat (since it is handheld and not on a dolley).
o 00:01:29: The camera pans right, stops panning at 00:01:33 and turns left as the director distributes case assignments to everyone.
o The shot finally cuts at 00:01:47 to an eerie room with bright light and fog pouring in from outside.
These two shots are interesting and noteworthy due to their fluidity in movement; the camera pans, tilts, and moves freely and without warning. Sometimes the characters speaking appear onscreen, and sometimes they are left off to only show the people listening. The camera never stops moving completely during the whole 80 seconds of Shot 2 and 14 seconds of Shot 1. This contrasts starkly with the cinematography not only of the entirety of Maborosi but also the majority of the remainder of After Life. This shot clearly gains significance due to the fact that almost the exact same sequence of events happens in the last scene of After Life, and due to the immobility of the camera during the true meat of the film: the documentary-style interviews with the ten deceased people. The opening and closing scenes feel more authentic due to this handheld camerawork that some of the more traditional directors and cinematographers in Hollywood might just assume is sloppy filming. This seems, however, to be Kore-eda’s intention. He does not seek to glamorize his actors (and non-actors, in the case of the ten interviewees) with crisp, by-the-book camerawork. As Kore-eda said in an interview, “I’m not interested in creating heroes, superheroes or antiheroes. I simply want to look at people as they are” (Cacoulidis).
This attitude carries over to the very realistic, cinéma-vérité style of the interviews that take up most of the film – a style Kore-eda became familiar with by virtue of his career as a television documentary director. Donald Richie confirms that “Although the staff had scripted lines, the ten amateurs did not” (244). This explains the improvisational appearance of the interviewees trying to recall their favorite memories. Take for example the woman who reminisced about her days as a performer in dance halls. She tells about how her brother would take her to cafes to show her off to his friends in exchange for fixing her chicken rice. She says the lines “I wanted to eat those dishes” and “Funny, isn’t it?” several times while recounting this endearing story about her love for her older brother, who died before her. Oftentimes she looks up at the ceiling – a gesture that clearly indicates that she is thinking as she speaks and had no rehearsed lines. Whether or not the story is actually true for the real actress is unknown, but it feels real as she recounts it. Thus, even in the surreal environment of limbo, a land that is not quite life and not quite eternity, people are still people. They look, act, and speak as if they were having ordinary conversations with people instead of acting for a fictional film.
Yet he does not merely reference Ozu and mimic his style only. Kore-eda’s postmodern style works in much more complicated and nuanced ways than that. Instead, Kore-eda uses Ozu as an example of great, time-tested technique on which to build in order to forge his own unique identity. Ozu would not have lingered with on a long shot with a long take of the ant-sized funeral procession plus Yumiko at the end of Maborosi. He would have used more shot / reverse shot in the dialogue between the interviewers and the interviewees in After Life. That the interviewer stays behind the camera mark Kore-eda’s film as an effort to bridge the gap between fiction films and documentaries. Kore-eda also use the postmodern technique of eliding. The film rarely shows the interviewees walking into the room or walking out, and in the aforementioned conversation with the woman remembering dancing for her brother, she actually appeared to open her mouth to continue speaking even though the film cut to another person’s interview. Viewers of the film never learn how the people died or see their initial reactions to being dead but alive in a sense. Kore-eda skips past these exciting and bizarre points to present the ordinary.
After Life succeeds in convincing its audience that it is entirely possible for the unknown world people enter when they die to feel a lot like their past lives. Just as people get into everyday routines as mortals, the employees must go through the same process of coming to work on Monday, being assigned cases of recently deceased people, assisting them in finding a suitable and enjoyable memory, and producing a film that mimics the memory as closely as possible. Before they can enter the perfect and absolute eternity, people must face a transitional period – an Ozu-esque hallway between two points of their existences – that is as imperfect, complicated, and routinized as mortality. The film is a poignant reminder of life’s ups and downs and urges people to not over-idealize life or glaze over the ordinary moments that everyone experiences.
Cacoulidis, Cleo. “Talking to Hirokazu Kore-Eda.” BrightLightsFilm.com. February 2005. Bright Lights Film Journal. 6 Apr. 2008. <http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/47/koreeda.htm>
Kore-eda, Hirokaza, dir. After Life. 1998. DVD. New Yorker Video, 2000.
Kore-eda, Hirokaza, dir. Maborosi. Perf. Esumi Makiko. 1995. DVD. New Yorker Video, 2000.
Richie, Donald. A Hundred Years of Japanese Film. New York: Kodansha International, 2001.
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