Film: This thought will stay with you for a very long time

Imagine choosing the most wonderful moment of your life and living it for ever. For Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu, this is a vision of death. By Roger Clarke

If you were asked to select one single memory from your life to accompany you into eternity, what would it be? This stark eidetic idea is the core of young Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu's feature follow- up to his majestical study of loss and bereavement, Maborosi (1995), where a woman lives out her life in the roaring limbo left by her husband's inexplicable death on a suburban train track.

After the nauseating slew of sentimental movies that Hollywood regularly turns out on the subject of the afterlife, Hirokazu's interpretation of the idea is as cold and refreshing as the snow water from a sacred mountain.

His film After Life explores a beautifully simple metaphysical conceit. We find ourselves observers in the not unfriendly realm of the recently dead. They arrive every week at a kind of half-way house, a tangible emotional stageing post in some ethereal realm that all the same seems wintry and real.

Here, sympathetic staff of all ages (but tellingly, mostly young) help the dead to choose that one inspiring moment of their lives that they want to remember for ever and to inhabit for all eternity.

No practical judgement of their lives is involved. Those who fail to choose simply end up becoming the staff at these places themselves. In truth it is an afterlife where one epiphanic moment exists more powerfully than any amount of demented spasms of hellfire or fluffy, enchanted heavens.

At 36, Hirokazu is a remarkable artist, one who is preoccupied with the troubling vagaries and shifting sands of memory within our essential identities.

Hirokazu's deep interest in memory was prompted in part by the childhood experience of watching his grandfather succumb to the withering horrors of Alzheimer's disease (how sad that other wonderful recent, tender Asian - in this case Cantonese - movie about Alzheimer's, Anne Hui's Summer Snow, has not found a distributor here).

One character in After Life is an old lady who suffered from Alzheimer's disease before she died. We are told that what has happened to her is quite painfully simple. She has chosen her one memory already. She chose before she died.

Hirokazu is second only to Werner Herzog in his commitment to the idea of documentary as an essential adjunct to his feature film-making (he's made 12 such documentaries so far).

In the time since Maborosi came out he has made the award-winning Without Memory which chronicles the real `afterlife' of an actual young father's adjustment to a hospital blunder which destroyed his short-term memory.

In many ways it recalls Herzog's earliest documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971) which examines the eerie hinterland of the simultaneously deaf and blind. Are people with no memory dead? Are you only truly dead when you have been forgotten?

"I wanted to choose memories that would directly stimulate the five senses of the audience - including sound, taste and smell," says Hirokazu, a man much given to disconcertingly long, intense pauses when he considers answers.

To uncover a storehouse of such memories for After Life, he doggedly interviewed some 500 volunteers. "Half of the people in the movie are real people. And even with the actors, many of them are telling stories about themselves."

Their chosen moment is literally `filmed' for the dead by an actual film crew - the dead watch it, merge with it, and never seem to come out of the cinema again.

It's all done on a budget and the seedy, decayed building where this all takes place is straight out of a modern Russian film (how good to know that God, like our very own earthly politicians, doesn't `throw money' at problems). It's a film about film, deprivation of sense and austere metaphysics that would make surely make Herzog glow with pleasure.

When asked why he chose not to show his audience any of the imaginary films being made in these afterlife studios, Hirokazu is very clear on the matter. It would be like a priest ratting on a confessional, one suspects. "In one rough cut lasting five hours, we did show them. But then I began to realise that it wasn't appropriate for either the dead or the audience to see those memories represented as images."

His language is telling. No doubt this was partly out of deference to the real people involved and the problems of pseudo-filming their most precious recollection. But it is also, perhaps, something to do with Hirokazu's unspoken conviction that he is in some sense performing the same function of the heavenly film studio in the movie.

As old people tell their tales of being starving Japanese soldiers in the Second World War, or the dance-steps they first took as a bashful teenager wearing red shoes, Hirokazu has committed one memory of their lives to film and they will be remembered centuries from now. They will exist.

It's not surprising to discover then, that whenever Hirokazu is asked, as he always is, what would be the one memory he would choose for all eternity, he replies that he wouldn't choose. He would become one of the non-committal staff of this crumbling celestial institute and help others to film their solitary redeeming moment. "I would choose to polish my directorial skills," he responds, slyly, with a trace or mordant humour. The right not to choose, of course, is the only genuine right available to humanity. It is those characters who actually cannot choose who are the most interesting in the film - the bolshie teenage girl trainee played with great aplomb by Erika Oda and her immediate boss, a soldier killed in World War Two who is still 22 in the afterlife, are the two major figures of the halfway house.

But their clients also, one a 70-year-old played by Taketoshi Naito and one a kid played by Yusuke Iseya, don't take easily to the idea of stripping everything out of their existence but for one superb image. The feisty, punkish Iseya in many ways is the voice of the director - refusing to choose for moral reasons, whereas the old man simply cannot choose because he is unable to find one happy or transcendental moment in his entire life.

I craved for at least one character who deliberately chose a bad memory to accompany himself forever - surely, hell - but alas Hirokazu didn't deliver on this score.

At the Toronto festival earlier this year a bidding war broke out with Hollywood studios vying for the re-make rights for After Life, which in Japan, rather delightfully, is called Wonderful Life.

There have, after all, been successful `afterlife' films from Hollywood - Jacob's Ladder, Heaven Can Wait, and an upcoming blockbuster I can't name without spoiling the plot (you don't know it's an afterlife film until the end) - but will this delicate Japanese tale about how we edit our lives, and which puts humanity above sentiment and religion, survive in the land of the easy sob and the bible bash? We'll just have to wait and see.

`After Life' is showing at the ICA (0171- 930 3647) from 1-28 October

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor