A movie as thoughtfully personal as "After Life" invites any number of equally valid reactions, but calling it overblown is surely not among them.
Though the Japanese import's concerns are writ large -- the nature of eternity, the persistence of memory, the thorny quest for meaning -- its touch is light and its heart gentle as it explores a spiritual plane that's oddly comforting in its resemblance to our own.
Writer/director Hirokazu Kore-Eda's roots are in documentary filmmaking, and it shows: Though his script is set entirely in an imaginary holding compound between this world and the next, he avoids angelic flummery in favor of a straight-ahead vision of the unremarkable surroundings that greet the souls of the departed. In his vision, limbo is a humble series of architecturally outmoded official buildings, populated by seraphs in street clothes who exhibit a kind of enlightened bureaucracy as they prep their charges for the voyage ahead.
Those tourists spend one week in transition between Here and There, but the time isn't wasted filling out forms. They're made to select the single defining memory they wish to carry with them from their time on Earth, a moment that will then be re-created on film by their industrious escorts.
The mutual project is clearly as much of a commentary on the role of cinema as it is on the meaning of life. Isn't the repackaging of recollection for pleasure the heart of the movie business? You can almost hear Kore-Eda chuckling as his otherworldly directors strive to simulate real-life occurrences within a tight 7-day schedule and using the limited resources at their command. Props are cobbled together, lighting choices are debated and crew members are enlisted as extras. It's among Kore-Eda's slyest conceits to suggest that even God operates on a low arts budget.
Compounding the urgency, a 70-year-old man named Watanabe (Taketoshi Naito) waits until the 11th hour to decide on his own standout moment, wracking his brain for a deserving highlight of his "average" life. His dilemma is thoroughly understandable -- weren't we always promised our ENTIRE lives would pass before our eyes when we died? How to choose but one snapshot, when the days have run together into a lackluster routine?
Watanabe's final selection, however, has serious consequences for Mochizuki (Arata), a counselor whose connection to the old man is revealed to exceed a mere week's worth of stewardship. Maintaining a stately, dignified pace, Kore-Eda lets their unfolding relationship stand in for the bonds of trust and interdependence that unite a great filmmaker and his or her audience. His respect for that covenant never flags, and we have no other choice than to keep our part of the bargain -- and keep watching.