Sporting a premise so irresistible that the fine folks at Artistic License opted to simply plaster it in big sans-serif letters across the top of the one-sheet -- viz. "What is the one memory you would take with you?" -- After Life wisely (and plausibly, I think) emphasizes the prosaic and fleeting rather than the momentous and destiny-altering. Indeed, the entire first half of the movie is basically a series of variations on Everett Sloane's nostalgic monologue in Citizen Kane: "I only saw her for one second; she didn't see me at all; but I'll bet a month hasn't gone by since that I haven't thought of that girl." I came prepared for some first-rate anecdotes, and wasn't a bit disappointed; the deft characterizations and warm humor, on the other hand, took me completely by surprise, especially after the sloth-paced SomberFest that was this director's previous picture, Maborosi. (Suggested interrogative logline: "What if your husband committed suicide for no apparent reason, and you spent a couple of really uneventful screen-hours brooding about it?") Reportedly, half of the actors playing the deceased are pros reciting invented lines, the other half amateurs genuinely reminiscing; it's a testament to the film's remarkable fluidity that it's impossible to categorically place most of the performers in one group or the other. Looks great, too: one-upping the bureaucratic mise-en-scène* of Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life, Hirokazu makes the most of his rather dingy- and decidedly terrestrial-looking purgatory, alternating between simple medium close-ups (for the interviews) and brief, evocative long shots (for scenes of the staff at rest, generally at night). "A-, at least, for sure," I was thinking happily halfway through. Then, alas, the plot kicked in, and I watched in growing bewilderment as the employees went about re-creating the chosen memories on film, presumably so that HK-e could make a few observations about the relationship between memory and cinema. These turn out to be less than super-revelatory, frankly (though I did quite like the bit in which a worker, handing his most indecisive charge a videocassette archive of his entire life, cautioned "these won't correspond exactly to what you remember, so just use them as a guide"), and the last thing the movies need right now is yet another meta-meditation. As an elegant thought-provoker re: which moments of our lives we most value and cherish, however, this kicks some static Japanese ass.
* (There's no good unpretentious English word or phrase, I swear to god! I've looked!)