Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Roger Ebert introduced readers to a late masterpiece of Japanese cinema

Illustration for article titled Roger Ebert introduced readers to a late masterpiece of Japanese cinema

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In honor of the late Roger Ebert, whose life and career is celebrated in the new documentary Life Itself, we’re recommending a few films the critic loved and championed.

After Life (1998)

Not to immediately launch into hyperbole or anything, but Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s After Life is the best Japanese film of the last 30 years. At least. While that may be a tall claim, it doesn’t even begin to stack up to what Roger Ebert had to say about this gentle and unassuming high-concept drama. In the 1999 review that introduced so many people to Kore-Eda’s movie, Ebert wrote that the filmmaker “Has earned the right to be considered with Kurosawa, Bergman and other great humanists of the cinema.” Needless to say, Ebert gave After Life four stars.

The premise is as tantalizing as it is simple: When people die, they enter a cozy and rustic office, where they’re given a week to chose one memory from their lives to take with them for eternity. The process is difficult and delicate, but a team of trained professionals are on hand to guide the recently deceased, conducting daily interviews in order to help them choose just the right moment. When the seven days are up, the staffers use the charmingly crude sets, props, and costumes at their disposal to film the chosen memories. The following Monday, a new batch of spirits arrive. After Life unobtrusively observes one of these weekly cycles.

Brilliantly calling upon his background as a non-fiction filmmaker, Kore-Eda shoots most of After Life as a series of polite interrogations, the statically lensed sessions graced with the unhurried truth of a good documentary. The pace isn’t slow, it’s just not overtly cinematic; plot points are infrequent and often disguised, bobbing into view like buoys separated by long stretches of ocean. Indelible characters slowly emerge, but the audience is encouraged to turn inward, each viewer lulled into putting her own memories on a scale, weighing time against transience.


One of the few films that’s excerpted in Life Itself is Ingmar Bergman’s Cries & Whispers, and re-reading Ebert’s review of After Life makes clear how that choice epitomizes the sensitive lucidity of Steve James’ portrait. This is how Roger Ebert ends his review of After Life, his words here accurately distilling the effect of his life and the power of the film made about it:

“Which memory would I choose? I sit looking out the window, as images play through my mind. There are so many moments to choose from. Just thinking about them makes me feel fortunate. I remember a line from Ingmar Bergman’s film Cries & Whispers. After the older sister dies painfully of cancer, her diary is discovered. In it she remembers a day during her illness when she was feeling better. Her two sisters and her nurse join her in the garden, in the sunlight, and for a moment pain is forgotten, and they are simply happy to be together. This woman who we have seen die a terrible death has written: ‘I feel a great gratitude to my life, which gives me so much.’”

Availability: After Life is available on DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix.

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