Guest post by Isabel Nieves.
Themester intern Isabel Nieves had a conversation with Dr. Izabela Potapowicz, a visiting assistant professor in the Comparative Literature Department. They discussed the upcoming Themester film, After Life (1998), which follows several individuals transitioning from life to their afterlife. Each person can choose one cherished memory to recreate before the transition. (This interview was edited and condensed.)
Why did you suggest After Life to the semester committee?
I thought it was a perfect match for the theme of remembering and forgetting because the whole premise of the film is based on remembering and holding onto one single memory.
The film takes place in a sort of limbo, in a space between the world of the living and the afterlife, where a group of people meet and they have to pick one single memory that they will take into this heaven, this afterlife. So, it’s a very difficult choice. Once they do decide on the memory, they have to stage it. They basically create a theater piece in order to relive the memory and then go on. This film has a very beautiful sensibility. It’s very thoughtful and very human.
The filmmaker, [Hirokazu] Kore-eda, his whole body of work centers around different variations on the theme of memory. This is, I think, his second feature film. I know that earlier he wrote a scenario in which he gets shrunk, gets into this little tiny vessel that allows him to enter his grandfather’s body and he can go into his head and restore memories that are being lost. I don’t think that film ever got made, but that was one of the scripts he wrote. It had an autobiographical basis: his grandfather had some kind of dementia, and so this seems to be something that haunted him since a young age. But aside from all of that, this film is really worth seeing.
Do the counselors in After Life recreate this one memory to constantly play in their afterlife, or is it just right before?
They replay it and they relive it while they’re replaying – or staging it – and then they go on. So, we can assume that they just hold onto this memory, and it fills their afterlife. If I remember correctly, the people who work in this space, this limbo space, and who help the newly deceased with the logistics of this enterprise are people who have not managed to pick that one single memory. So, in some ways it’s amusing that their failure allows them to stay in this space and help others narrow it down and move on.
But there are many examples [of different kinds of memories] in the film. There’s an important reflection on what constitutes memory by how we remember and what we remember—what are the very important things for us—and even how early we remember. There’s one character who remembers moments of just comfort and happiness when he was a mere baby, which is very rare.
I had seen this film a few years after it came out, when I was living in Mexico, in Guadalajara. It was in a repertory cinema and already it felt like a displacement. I was in one alternative space and this was fiction happening in Japan — this reflection on what happens when we die, how eternal memory could be, what stays with us.
How do science fiction and fantasy overlap?
I’m teaching a class on science fiction and fantasy in the Western tradition. In similar ways, we look at the various ways that science fiction, or fantasy, has explored memory. It’s a very big theme in science fiction. So, if you think of all of these films that explore what happens if somebody has access to our memory, what happens when somebody can manipulate our memory, erase our memory… For example, right now in my class we’re doing the first Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 and there’s a lot about individual memory based on objects or photographs, or collective memories, right? What happens if all our systems get erased? What happens to our, not only our baby pictures, but also our collective memory?
So, it’s a pretty big theme in both genres. The science fiction deals perhaps more with the sciencey aspects of this kind of imaginary. But in fantasy we allow ourselves to wonder about other kinds of possibilities and other kinds of worlds without having to explain them in a scientific way, in any way. That would be the main difference.
This film did not fit 100% with the class theme since we’re focusing on Western works, but I felt it was such a beautiful film that I did recommend for my students to go see it. I do think that everybody should see it because it’s just a lovely story.
Do you see any significant differences in how we portray memory and in Western tradition compared to Eastern tradition?
I’m not sure if I have the expertise to go as far as to generalize on that point. Compared to the films that we’re studying in this class this particular semester is definitely far less dramatic, much more poetic, which doesn’t mean that this does not exist in the Western tradition.
For example, in the class we’re looking at Total Recall and Blade Runner, or even episodes from Black Mirror, which are all much more dramatic and violent and may be based on some kind of major conflict. Whereas here [in After Life] there is no power struggle. There is no war-like conflict. There’s an inner conflict, an inner question of what is the one most important memory that I may have and how do I relive it? How do I make others live it with me and then go on? It’s very poetic. It’s very introspective. You can’t go to see this movie and expect, you know, great action. It’s meant to provoke a reflection on the nature of our memories.
You suggested After Life as a contrast to high tech science-fiction films shown in your class. Could you give an example of a film that’s clearly different from this film that you have been studying within your class?
Yes. The theater aspect is very interesting in that film because it’s not about technology. There’s one character who remembers flying through the sky as if he were a pilot. He remembers this moment of elation when he’s going through clouds, this wonder and elation and happiness. So, they construct some kind of plane and then they literally make clouds out of some kind of foam or cotton. So, it’s very low tech.
In my class we’ve watched the very first Total Recall, which is very campy and very funny and very violent as well. But, in terms of Japanese productions, we can think of the example of Ghost in the Shell – the manga-based, animated Japanese film. Its themes deal with questions of memory and yet I do think it’s very different from After Life. It’s action-based, there is more violence. So we can’t say it’s just a Western/Eastern thing.
Have you ever thought about what memory you would relive before your afterlife?
It’s a big question, isn’t it? What memory would we take? Leaving the cinema, you wonder what would be the most important thing now, and maybe later that changes. I’m sure if I asked my students now, they would give me a very different answer now than in 10 years or 20 years. That’s the struggle that the characters go through within a film. If you had to stop your life now, that would be the moment you would get to pick your memory. [It’s] something that reverberates in our soul emotionally.
The counselors have to recreate this memory, but do they ever struggle with a memory being unreliable or maybe a memory that didn’t actually happen?
No, that’s not an issue in this film. In this film, memory is very much tied to an emotional state. The aim of recreating the memory is tied to this idea that if you recreate the memory, then you can relive it. You can feel it again. And that feeling, that memory, will bring you forward right into this “after” space, the afterlife space. The reliability of memory… For example, in Phillip K. Dick short stories or a lot of the contemporary science fiction in the Western world there’s the question of: can I trust my memory? Has it been implanted, or changed, or do I remember something that didn’t happen? In After Life, that’s not really a preoccupation. The main concern is to find the one memory and to relive it again. The need of narrowing it down to one thing represents the difficulty, because this one memory, this one feeling, is what each individual will get to keep for eternity.
Isabel Nieves is an Outreach Intern for Themester. She is studying Journalism with a minor in Arts Management. Isabel is excited about the podcast Remembering and Forgetting which she co-hosted and produced this summer finally being available to the public through the Themester website.