22 August 2007

After Life

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 11:55 am

On After Life, a 1998 film by Kore-Eda…

The premise is straightforward. When you die, you’re sent to a residential institution where you undergo a one-week orientation and transition program. Your task during the first half of the week is to settle on a single memory that was particularly meaningful to you during your lifetime. During the second half of the week the staff recreates the scene of this memory as accurately as they can, given the surprisingly limited resources available to them. Finally, on the last day, you watch the filmed reenactment of your memory. As you watch you are transported into the memory, where you will spend eternity. The self-referential interpretation is clear: film itself is a portal to alternate realities.

But there’s also this: I live my life haunted by my own ghost, who lives in my memory. My spectral double keeps haunting me with the past, turning the present into an eternal return of prior events, places, relationships, experiences. Traumatic events might intrude, but my main defense against them is to relive, over and over, the happy events of my life. Maybe the times I danced for my brother. Or the day I sat with my fiancee on a park bench. Or being cradled on my mother’s lap as a small child. Or soaring through the clouds on a solo flight. The memories chosen by the newly-deceased all shared an archaic narcissism, a sense of instantaneous yet timeless plenitude, a direct connection with the Real that underlies all differentiation between self, other and the world. Remembered moments like these are so primal, so perfect, so self-obliterating that they may have happened only in our imaginations.

I might be alert to the ways in which I re-enact the destructive and painful patterns I developed at a younger age, but I’m less aware of how I’m held captive by the shining moments. Entranced by their glow I might escape the spell in which the darker events of the past would ensnare me. But the luminant memories also cast long shadows that obscure the dimmer existential charms of quotidian life. By keeping past glories in front of me all the time, like a movie reel that loops eternally, I stop living life in real time. Because nothing can equal the sublime moments from my (real or imagined) past, I vaguely discern that my ghostly mnemic double is the one who truly lives, and that the present is but a pale afterglow of a meaningful but mythic past.

In the film there are some who cannot choose a memory. These aren’t the ones who led terrible lives: for them to lock into one good memory is to forget all the rest. Rather it’s those who in looking back on their lives see a flat and featureless plain: they cannot choose because there’s nothing worth remembering.

Then there are those who will not choose. Why lock into a memory that’s barely real any more? Why not relive a dream? Why not create a fictional scene and live that? Or why not just live inside this heterotopic way station poised between a mythic past and a mythic eternity? Why not live this haunted and precarious life week after week? Maybe join the staff, help others remember, recreate their stories, allow their memories to trigger your own without getting locked into them. Enjoy tenuous fellowship with those few others who manage to keep company with specters while resisting the persistent lure to join their number.



  1. Such a powerful movie that really does point to the memories we maintain, or fabricate. As stories, they become fixed if we write them down, but as memories they can continue to morph. In the film, the recollection becomes permanent for eternity and is the onlyrecollection. That seems the most difficult…to choose only one memory for all time. But then, maybe, there is no regret either because other becomes meaningless too; there is only the one.

    I like this movie a lot and, in fact, think I’ll go watch it again right now.

    Meilleurs voeux!!


    Comment by blueVicar — 23 August 2007 @ 9:54 am

  2. I like the movie a lot too, Vicar — this was maybe my fourth viewing. What struck me more directly this time is the horror of remaining frozen in a single memory for eternity. In psychoanalytic theory, transference entails this very phenomenon of having one’s life perpetually shaped by events in the past, events that may have been severely distorted or hidden by memory but that nevertheless impose a mythic personal past onto the present. This ghost of the past overlays real time, trapping the progression of time in static memory like a fly in amber. It’s the eternal return that haunted Nietzsche — even the Superman is doomed to relive his past glories over and over. In After Life the dead person chooses a good memory, but the effect is similar to transference: instead of being persistently mired in self-destructive cycles, the rememberer remains embedded in a static moment of bliss that lasts forever. It’s an idealistic image of eternity — the eternal now — that I find sort of terrifying.

    “But then, maybe, there is no regret either because other becomes meaningless too; there is only the one.”

    I wonder if some vague traces of a forgotten past would persist, always haunting the perfect eternal moment with the nagging sense that something imperfect and ephemeral is missing and has been lost…


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 August 2007 @ 12:02 pm

  3. Hmmm, and tell me Ktis, how do you feel about feeling terrified by this eternal bliss?

    Meilleurs voeux!!


    Comment by blueVicar — 23 August 2007 @ 12:34 pm

  4. I just read an interview with KORE-EDA that is here. A few excerpts that I found poignant:

    When we were developing the script, we asked more than 500 people to recount the one memory they would choose to take with them to heaven. I was intrigued by how often people chose upsetting experiences. The first half of the film uses actors working from scripts, actors recounting their own experiences, and really people telling true stories.

    Our memories are not fixed or static. They are dynamic, reflecting selves that are constantly changing. So the act of remembering, of looking back at the past, is by no means redundant or negative. Rather, it challenges us to evolve and mature.

    For me, this is the central revelation of the film –that the accumulation of any person’s life is embedded in the chain of human experiences. Bits and pieces of our selves are held in the minds of everyone we encounter in life.

    Although this is a film about memory, it is also a film about what it means to make films.


    Meilleurs voeux!!


    Comment by blueVicar — 23 August 2007 @ 12:42 pm

  5. And about your last paragraph, Ktis, I wonder if some vague traces of a forgotten past would persist, always haunting the perfect eternal moment with the nagging sense that something imperfect and ephemeral is missing and has been lost…

    I don’t believe for a second that there would be any “nagging sense of something imperfect”; no. No nagging nothing. At least not in the eternity that KORE-EDA was suggesting.

    Meilleurs voeux!!


    Comment by blueVicar — 23 August 2007 @ 12:45 pm

  6. But we never get to observe or interview the blissful denizens of eternity after they’ve entered into their dreams. We need the sequel: After Life Two: the Return of the Repressed.


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 August 2007 @ 12:54 pm

  7. So no Sartre: l’enfer c’est les autres.


    Comment by Odile — 23 August 2007 @ 1:00 pm

  8. L’enfer ou le paradis? L’enfer et le paradis?


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 August 2007 @ 10:34 pm

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