Thanks to the genius of millions, who over the generations have created our language, we may speak of the most uncanny experience in terms that suit the most common. We call a place haunted to say that it feels the touch of the other world–and also to describe it as a hangout of the day-in, day-out kind.
Whether this overlay of meanings holds in Japanese, I do not know. But thanks to the genius of Hirokazu Kore-eda, I have just visited an unforgettably day-in, day-out place: an old high school or municipal building where coat hooks are fixed in the ocher walls, potted plants perch on the ledges of casement windows, gooseneck lamps sit on wooden desks and the residents are hard-working ghosts.
As brisk as a snow flurry, as straightforward as a photo-booth portrait, as sly and heartbreaking as memory, Kore-eda’s After Life is the story of a half-dozen ghosts who staff a kind of social service agency for the newly dead. We witness one full cycle of the weekly routine: receiving the caseload on Monday, officially informing the clients of their demise, helping them prepare for the beyond and then seeing them off on Saturday. We learn something about the lives of most of the week’s twenty-two cases, who range from a teenage girl with a plaid scarf and singsong voice to a perfectly round old woman with round eyeglasses who smiles perpetually but seldom speaks. In addition, we learn something about ourselves as viewers of these characters–because After Life is also a story about watching movies.
For each of the dead, the caseworkers diligently reproduce on film a single moment from his or her life. It will be the one memory to sustain that person throughout eternity; all else will vanish. So the haunted municipal building does double duty as a haunted movie studio. The main business during the first half of the week is to interview the cases and help them choose their moments; during the second half, to make a series of one-scene movies, each crafted for a singular audience, using production methods from roughly the same era as the building. The world to come has not yet converted to digital. Sets still require carpentry; sound effects are played on cassette recorders.
The setting and methods may be humble, but then so are the people. A 50ish man with a broad, chewed-up face wants to recall the breeze he felt as a boy, as he rode home on a steamy bus the day before summer vacation would begin. A tiny woman in her 70s, with short gray hair and a blue knit suit, chooses a memory of dancing for her older brother in a red dress he’d bought her. Though many of the week’s cases lived through earthquake and war, their lasting memories seem to have happened to one side of these great events. The dead hold on to a privileged moment with their parents, an unanticipated act of kindness from American soldiers, a change in the light.
One essential function of movies is surely to show us other people and satisfy our curiosity about them. In After Life, Kore-eda meets this requirement again and again, and in the most direct way possible, presenting these characters in a series of interviews shot head-on. The people seem to speak to us directly; and since they’ve been asked to address their favorite subject–themselves–they give us everything.