(The nature of this article is such that it requires spoiling basic plot details of After Life, so you should only continue reading after this paragraph if you either do not mind spoilers or have already seen the film. – The Gemsbok)
The meaning of existence, the value of time, and the nature of life after death are explored in countless forms of cultural production, ranging from novels to advertisements; however, one unique Japanese film called After Life takes its audience into the realm between life and afterlife.
Slated for a one week deadline, twenty-two dead clients are in search of a single memory to carry into eternity while caseworkers reproduce each unique experience onto film. By manipulating the audience’s range and depth of knowledge, director Hirokazu Koreeda successfully enlists mainly restricted and subjective narration to construct the narrative structure of After Life.
After Life and the Audience’s Knowledge:
Throughout the one hundred eighteen minutes of screen duration, the plot of After Life unravels as information is fed very frugally to the audience through the voices of the film’s agents. Koreeda uses restricted narration, where crucial developmental information is withheld from the audience, and slowly revealed with minimal unrestricted narration to guide viewers toward the climax of the film.
As the agents of the film explore the ethical concept of lying by omission, the audience—along with other agents—is robbed of valuable information which contributes to the overall story. For instance, Mochizuki cannot bear the pain of revealing his full identity to Watanabe, therefore the audience also misses the opportunity to realize this truth. In a surprising twist of plot development, Watanabe later reveals that he indeed knows Mochizuki’s true identity as his wife’s former fiancée. Through this revelation, Watanabe discovers his single memory of happiness and is able to carry it onto his afterlife.
The audience witnesses the spectral relationship between restricted and un-restricted narration when the audience learns that Watanabe’s wife, Kyoko, chose a memory which includes Mochizuki. This is a piece of information restricted to Mochizuki, Shiori, and the audience; as a being of the afterlife, Watanabe would never gain this knowledge.
In addition, the audience is also carried into the climax when Mochizuki reaches an epiphany and chooses his eternal memory. Mochizuki realizes that, while the importance of happiness lies within oneself, it may also be drawn through the happiness of others, especially when one has contributed to said happiness.
As a result, Koreeda’s enlistment of restricted narrative takes the audience along the journey of its characters; with no additional knowledge, viewers gain the same understanding as the characters during each discovery.
After Life and the Audience’s Expectations:
Aside from illustrating the climax, restricted narration often allows for moments of surprise as the audience’s initial expectations are proven wrong. As screen, plot, and story duration progresses along with the projects to the afterlife, the audience learns the true focus of the film as the plot leads up to the developmental twist.
The afterlife of each client are significant, but the true emphasis is placed on Mochizuki. The audience is striving to find Mochizuki’s special moment while the other agents merely contribute to resolving this central conflict which belongs to Mochizuki.
Ultimately, restricted narration is a mechanism that leads the audience toward the climax and introduces the element of surprise while building the audience’s range of knowledge in the narrative structure of After Life.
After Life and the Documentary Style:
The restricted nature of this film’s narrative is largely a result of Koreeda’s documentary style, where the audience is restricted to the information given by the subjective, often unpredictable voices of the clients and caseworkers.
By entrusting the storytelling to dead individuals, the audience is in for a vast array of subjective narration. As each client is interviewed, viewers are treated with the multiple-narrator format where some agents are depicted with traits of generosity and humor while others appear deliberately mute.
By examining Shiori, the audience learns that she is often playing the role of a surrogate narrator. Like Mochizuki, the audience continues to build the story with the experiences of Shiori. Due to her presence as a caseworker in training, the audience sees much of the film’s reality through her eyes as she learns about the facility.
With the help of eye-line match editing and point-of-view shots in After Life, Koreeda shares Shiori’s sense of sight with the viewers. Perceptual and mental subjectivity is also present during Shiori’s scenes to raise sympathy for her character.
For example, cues review Shiori’s backstory of being an orphan. Also, when alone she attempts to recreate the memories of her clients by submerging herself into a bath, upon hearing that the underwater sensation is equally as comforting as being in a mother’s secure womb. Furthermore, she does so by describing a nonexistent ride on her father’s back to Sayaka Yoshino—a client who changes her memory from Disneyland to a moment with her mother. Viewers are able to sympathize with Shiori as her backstory unfolds and to learn about Mochizuki and his clients through Shiori’s ears.
Objectivity and Subjectivity in After Life:
Alongside subjective narration, the film swiftly switches back-and-forth to objective narration when the camera points its focus on the caseworkers. Beginning with the introduction to the team and the progress discussions of each day, a slightly unstable camera with medium shots trace the steps of the caseworkers as compared to a more stable camera with closer shots during interviews and other moments of self-disclosure. As a result, both modes of narration allow viewers to construct the many stories depicted in the film.
Despite the critical acclaim and dramatic setup, Hirokazu Koreeda sets his picture apart from classic Hollywood by choosing to present After Life as a stark contrast to his grandiose premise; the mundane simplicity of ordinary happiness provides possible answers to the many philosophical questions Koreeda proposes, all of which is achieved through the careful manipulation of the audience’s range and depth of knowledge.
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