Interview with Kore-Eda Hirokazu, director of AFTER LIFE
(… the following is an edited version of a conversation from October 1998 with Japanese film director, Kore-eda Hirokazu, in which he talks about his 1998 film, After Life … He is speaking through a translator … )
“I conceived of this place. It’s a forgiving place, and it’s a forgiven place. Life is tough, and life is pretty unforgiving, including my own, so at least after you’re dead, it wouldn’t be so bad if there was a place that was forgiving and forgiven.
“There’s this setting where you have three days to pick a memory, and then three days to recreate the memory before you go into heaven. The whole set-up is really a way to have people look back over their life, and go, ‘you know it wasn’t such a bad life after all.’ So, in fact, what those people are doing is reclaiming their lives.
“This whole system of getting to choose one memory looks very different depending on who you are, and what kind of life you’ve led, and how you think about life. There’s one guy, who says, ‘You mean I can forget everything? There really must be a heaven.’ So, for some people, just having one memory means, ‘Hallelujah, I can forget about the rest of my life and be happy again.’ But then there’s the young guy who says, ‘having to live with just one memory would be really difficult for me.’ So it’s like a system, and depending on who’s looking at it, it looks completely different. In this movie, I just portrayed a few possible ways in which the set-up might look to some different people. But there’s endless responses.
“The guy who said it’s your whole set-up that needs rethinking probably thought there was no meaning. But, as the guy who made the movie, my answer is, perhaps, there’s no real meaning in picking just one memory, but in the process of looking back over your whole life there’s meaning. In order to pick the memory, you have to reevaluate and re-look at everything. You know the guy who connects with the lady who has Alzheimers? She gives him the cherry blossom leaves at the end. He says at one point, ‘What’s the meaning of all this? Why are we recreating dead people’s memories?’ And that’s the same question that I, as a filmmaker, ask: ‘What’s the meaning in all this? Why do we do this?’ So, for instance in the recreation, first you hear the old people tell their memories, and then you see them go into a studio, and they start to recreate it, and then they bump up against, more or less, the reality of their experience. And they say, ‘how did that go?’ You have all these wonderful details that come back to life. So it’s the process of re-remembering and recreating in which the meaning exists.
“Most of the stories that are told in the movie are real stories that happened to real people. And even with some of the professional actors, I had written parts for them, but when they got to the shooting stage, and they watched these real people telling their real story, they said, ‘I have a real story I want to tell, too. I don’t need your script. I want to tell my story.’ In terms of the woman with Alzheimer’s, she is actually a very famous actor in Japan. She’s 86, and she’s completely fit as a fiddle in body and mind. But her behaviour is very much modeled on my grandfather. He probably had — and there was no word Alzheimer’s back then — when I was six years old, he began to stop remembering things.
“I actually believe that memories are central to identity. If you took away your memories, you wouldn’t have an identity anymore. So obviously, the act of taking a photograph and looking at it, and thereby remembering and reliving an event that took place in your life, is clearly a way of staying close to who you are and who you’ve been, and events that define your life. What I really wanted to do in this film is to say that by being engaged in a conversation or dialogue with your past, that people can actually grow. Usually, people say that when old people just live inside their memory, that’s talked about as a bad thing, but in this film I wanted to talk about it as a good thing. That by re-remembering a memory, once again in a new way, it can appear to you differently, and then that can be a catalyst for change. It’s not denying what you say, but there is a different way of being engaged with the past.
“I’ve thought about the inevitable discrepancy between ‘fact’ and ‘human memory’ a lot. But although I’ve portrayed many aspects of those discrepancies in the film, I don’t presume to judge this as negative. I think that the way we remember things is a record of our experience filled with our own emotional response to the situation, and maybe little lies that we tell ourselves, or little changes that we make in the story to make it prettier or better or more interesting than it really was. But all those little differences reflect the true character of that person. So the whole thing, all the changes, all the scratches, and all the ways we pretty it up, it’s all a record of who we are.
“What we’re trying to do in the studio with the camera and the crew and the cotton and the clouds is to try and create the subjective memory that is filled with emotion that you talked about, the kind you usually have, where you’re in the middle of it, and that’s fused with your subjectivity and your emotion. They’re two entirely different things. The videotape record, like the security camera, is used simply as little notes to remind someone of what it felt like.
“The videotape is not really like a human memory — it’s like a camera at a superstore or bank, it’s like a security camera. It’s like an eye that has no emotions, no subjective experience. It’s just a fixed camera and it’s always recording a life. Of course, no such thing exists. So that’s where the videotapes come in — no emotion, no subjectivity.
“You know the videotapes in the film, those are the same as that audio-tape of your interview that you were so disappointed by. And then the article that you write, even if it was a disappointing audio tape, you’re going to write from that magical memory that you have. And if this audio tape is equal to the videotapes in the film, then the article you would write is equal to the recreated memories. It is filled with your emotions, what you experienced inside yourself, not some flat fact of the tape. So that’s fine — they’re not the same thing. What you’re talking about, that kind of disappointment, is exactly what that old man goes through. He’s looking at year after year of his life on tape, and he thought he had a pretty good life. And he looks at the tape, and nothing happens, and nothing happens, and it feels empty, but the point of the movie is how do you overcome, how do you come to terms with that? So, say, it’s disappointing, well, you’re already dead, what are you going to do?”