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Compared to the afterlife portrayed in Albert Brooks' masterpiece Defending Your Life, the afterlife in After Life is much more austere and institutional. Perhaps this is a reflection of the differences between United States and Japanese culture and economy. The Japanese film, as much about filmmaking as about matters of the spirit, suggests that the Japanese sense of the sublime is less ostentatious than in the U.S. When you are Japanese, and you die, according to this film, you go to a building that looks like a school or a clinic. This is pre-heaven. You wear normal clothes and sit at folding tables while you wait your turn to talk to the afterlife committee who will facilitate your eternal fate.
In Brooks' purgatory, you are put in a nice hotel where every earthly comfort is yours for the thinking. All food tastes amazing, and every experience is as good as the best you've had while alive. In due course, two lawyer-like spokespeople argue whether or not you lived enslaved in your fears or free from them. If you lived above your fears, then you are permitted to enter heaven, basically an enhanced state of spiritual being that is left to the viewer's imagination to picture. If it is decided that you were a 'fraidy-cat and missed your potential as a human on earth, you are sent back down to do it again. Albert Brooks, full of his own foibles (he hardly has to act this), is on the cusp, and we do root for him throughout, nebbish though he is. Really, that film is quite charming, and Meryl Streep as the saintly foil to Brooks, was never more likeable.
In After Life, purgatory goes this way: You live in this dormitory for about a week. You are requested to pick your favorite memory from life. The staff of purgatory then creates a film of your favorite memory, starring you. Then, when you move on to heaven, you get to live your favorite earthly memory over and over again.
I think that a little video tape of my favorite memory is quite an unexciting consolation prize for having lived through all the challenges and ecstasies of the here and now. Still, the staff of the Japanese afterlife is quite earnest about filmmaking. They do eighteen to twenty-four films per week. It starts with counseling, getting to know each dead person, and talking to them about their favorite aspects of being alive. Characters retain their quirks and sometimes must be helped beyond their first reactions. An old man must be allowed to get past his feeling that sex was the best thing about being alive, just as a young girl is given time to move beyond her memories of Disneyland to something more individually fulfilling.
Then there are the problematic cases: a retarded woman whose psyche is locked at age six; a rebellious punk-rock type who simply refuses to chose a memory; a gray character who cannot think of one moment worth reliving. This film, like Brooks', focuses on the squeaky wheels and how they finally get the grease to move on into eternity.
We are also given insight into the spirits of the afterlife staff--unlike in Brooks' movie. In the Japanese afterlife, we are to understand that the people who do the counseling and filmmaking are there because they were not able, for whatever reason, to have their own movies made. This evolves into a touching but down-played story between one of the staff and one of the recently dead. It makes for a more fascinating character study, even in this far-fetched realm. I notice that just as the overall look of the film is far less splashy than any U.S. film, the romance too has a similar quietude.
Both films grapple with the awkwardness of trying to tell a tale about the afterlife. It's like Back to the Future I, II and III. You can tell this kind of a story without raising unanswerable questions. Albert Brooks has humor to help him distract his audience from the stickiness of the telling: whenever he gets uncomfortable in his films, he makes a joke, and the viewer laughs and forgets (or at least forgives) the plot's weakness. In his good films, like Defending Your Life and Lost in America, the timing is impeccable, the humor itself is brilliant, and the film is delivered with engagement. In his bad films, like The Muse, the humor is a transparent copout, and you just want to slap him.
After Life, without recourse to easy laughs, forces me to think about how odd it is to portray the afterlife in human media. It brings up all kinds of metaphysical questions, to whit: Where is it? What state are these people in? Where will they go next? Does everyone come through here? Is there a choice? Is there a God? The viral explosion of questions alienates me from the movie because I have to begin to ponder theology in order to suspend disbelief. On the other hand, it opens up the opportunity for me to wonder what the afterlife really might be like and what I'd experience, if, indeed, conscious experiences follow death, which I, personally, tend to doubt. What do you think?
The biggest awkwardness for me in this film, however, is its self-conscious focus on filmmaking. I don't know why I'd want a short subject on my favorite memory starring an aged version of myself to watch for all time. That sounds more like hell to me. I also find it odd how the films aren't divinely created--poof--here's your movie, written by you, produced by Deus X. Machina. Instead, the staff of the Japanese afterlife has a movie studio where they can create any background, foley, prop, etc. One man's favorite memory is flying a Cessna. Purgatory's filmmakers build clouds out of cotton and cue them on lines to fly past a stationary, but gently rocking airplane hull. We get the feeling that these types of special effects are working for the recently dead because they all say things like, "That feels so much like what I remember," "How wonderful," or "Yes, you've captured it exactly."
But maybe that's just Japanese graciousness. As an ugly American, I'd be more likely to say, "I give you credit for trying." As an ars poetica, a statement on the art of filmmaking, this movie is too easy on itself--and there is no doubt it is trying to be such a statement. As a musing on the afterlife, it is also somewhat shoddily constructed, but there is certainly enough there to hold the attention and plenty to talk about afterwards. Most of all, it's a fascinating contrast to Brooks' movie, which, in my biased opinion, is the superior one.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.