Death is usually a conclusion. That is, of course our last breaths constitute the conclusions to our own lives, but the cinematic death often comes at the end of the story. Either symbolizing failure or spurring our protagonist to victory, a Hollywood death is something to be avoided, a ghastly reminder of our hero’s, and the audience’s, unavoidable mortality.
In blockbuster films, death is something to either be avoided, or reversed. Gandalf transcends death to become more powerful, Harry Potter defies the Killing Curse to defeat Voldemort, and, over the next month, most of us are about to sit down for three hours to watch a ragtag group of superheroes reverse an event that wiped out 50% of their fictional universe.
Many of us will live long, rewarding lives and, as we get older, come to accept that it eventually all comes to an end. But in Western, secular minds there often still persists that creeping dread of the oncoming void. This is understandable, but rather unhealthy. We disassociate ourselves from it, especially in our younger years, refusing to believe that death is anything other than some far-off fantasy of the future. It’s for other people, not for us.
How often have we seen Peter Parker, Captain America, and Batman mourn over the losses of friends and family who become vessels and props for our hero’s motivation? Like many of us, I experienced a great deal of existential stress growing up as a relatively secular kid being fed narratives that seemed to refute death as a symbol of failure and conclusion. It’s only now when I’ve entered my twenties that I’ve begun to comprehend and accept the potential void of the grave as a natural part of human existence.
After newly discovering the prolific catalog of Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, I’ve began experiencing the sensitive touch of a filmmaker who understands that the loss of life need not always be a world-ending tragedy. More than any other filmmaker, Kore-eda has challenged my perceptions of mortality by embracing his subjects with unwavering warmth and respect. Thanks, in part, to the BFI Southbank’s recent season celebrating the director, I may have discovered my favorite working director. Or, at least, the filmmaker whose work I find the most therapeutic and reassuring.
It’s certain that death spurs a meditative preoccupation for Kore-eda, as ancestral remnants or recent catastrophes hang over the majority of his filmography. From the mysterious train collision of his debut fiction film Maborosi to the extravagant funeral of Our Little Sister, death for Kore-eda is all about family. Whether a recent loss forges the potential for family growth, or brings distant relatives together in unexpected ways, Kore-eda deeply understands that one’s departure from the Earth is felt most resonantly by the family and friends you leave behind.
Throughout most of Kore-eda’s films, on the peripheries just beyond his fascination for unconventional family units and domestic disruption, his detailed sets of houses and apartments frequently display a deep ancestral respect. Children are often taken aside by their grandparents to kneel at their decorative shrine for family long gone, offer a hushed prayer and ring a quiet bell. You most likely caught this particular moment in Shoplifters and it’s almost become a signature for the director. It’s refreshing that, amongst the hustle and bustle of 21st Century cinema, a director still exists who takes the opportunity to set the drama briefly aside for a quiet moment of reflection.
Religiously speaking, Japan is a curious country of various amalgamation, both secular and spiritual, that culminate in vague pontifications on life after death and retains ingrained traditions at the forefront of the national conscious. The combination of the native Shinto and the more recent addition of Buddhism has remained largely intact, but whilst most Japanese people practice certain religious traditions, including praying at altars and acknowledging religious holidays, the majority of the country’s population do not identify as belonging to an organized religion.
Learning about Japan’s attitudes to spirituality and worship is a daunting, vast undertaking, but Kore-eda’s films streamline a potentially daunting subject into insightful and effective microcosms. Nowhere is this more palpable and palatable than his follow-up to Maborosi, the gorgeous and reflective fantasy drama After Life. Taking place in a musty, understaffed and underfunded office familiar to anyone with insight into Japan’s precarious working environments, the film begins with a series of touching and understated interviews with a group of individuals you slowly realize have recently passed away.
The elderly clients are melancholy yet accepting, often happy to boast of their success and sexual conquests, or simply relieved to have exerted their last breath. The younger amongst them are naïve and incongruent, yet steeped with indirect pathos of a life cut unjustly short. The patrons are asked to select a defining memory to be re-enacted by the shabby vision of purgatory’s staff, who are essentially a group of practical filmmakers. They use visual tricks, matte paintings and costumes to allow their clients one last look at the life they’re leaving behind, before their spirits move on. Whether to a higher plane of existence, another body via reincarnation, or simply death’s final rest we’re not told, but the solace is found with each life given the chance to feel like it genuinely mattered.
I’d recommend the film to anyone struggling with the concept of death, whether they’re coming to terms with their own mortality or experiencing the loss of someone close to them. While it doesn’t try to offer any answers beyond its touching speculation on the interim between life and the grave, After Life’s good humored and tender memorial to lives worth living offers some of the most cathartic sequences of magical realism put to film in recent cinematic history.