I’ve had this film on my mind for the past few weeks. When I first watched it, at least 10 years ago, the question it posed made an impression on me: If when I Die, I can select one memory to take with me to the beyond and relive that memory for eternity, what would I choose?

The film was stored in my mental river. I’m not sure what has drawn me back to this movie recently, possibly it was recharged by watching another Japanese film dealing with death and reading a handful of Japanese literature lately that brought me back.

The film is told, for the most part, through a series of interviews with the dead who have arrived at a way station. They have one week to decide on just one memory that the counselors will do their best to recreate on film for the dead to view one last time before they depart to heaven and live this memory for eternity. The counselors gather as much information as possible from each person in order to bring their one memory to life. In some cases, when a person cannot think of any memories, their tapes are ordered: one for each year of their life. They then sit down, watch and search.

As I began giving thought to the memories in my own memory bank–if this were real and I were in their shoes, what would I do? At first, a memory came to me easily enough. Then I thought of how much depends of what stage of life we’re at and whose in it at the time. But if I’m already dead, that changes.

Then after watching the movie again, I had a change of heart. I realized that it would be too difficult to select just one memory, and to be honest, after I started thinking about what one of the characters said, he reminded me that it might actually be a little sad to relive the same memory forever.

I identified most with an elderly woman in her eighties who reminded me of my grandmother. She had nice round cheeks that were lifted into a smile. While she was sitting for her interview, as soon as she heard birds chirping, she looked to where she heard the sound coming from, and all her attention shifted. She didn’t say much. She had a bag in her lap that she was taking leaves out of and setting on the table, one by one. She asked if there were any flowers in the garden. In the spring they told her.

After asking her a series of questions: Was she married? Did she have children? and being met with nods of her head to say no, the counselors realized that this woman had actually already chosen her memory. She had sort-of locked into her childhood when she died, so instead of the 80-year old woman we saw, she was actually a young girl inside. They show a scene toward the end where she is sitting on the bench swinging her legs with the happiest, most carefree expression on her face. That is one of my favorite moments in the movie.

There aren’t any special effects in this film; instead what you’ll find is a touching, sometimes funny, sometimes sad expression of the afterlife and an exploration of the memories these characters hang on to, the power of all of our senses; and in turn, how these expressions encourage us to reflect upon our own treasured memories.


After Life (known in Japan as Wonderful Life) – 1998
Directed and written by Hirokazu Koreeda