If you could choose only one memory to hold on to for eternity, what would it be? That’s the question at the heart of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s revelatory international breakthrough, a bittersweet fantasia in which the recently deceased find themselves in a limbo realm where they must select a single cherished moment from their life to be recreated on film for them to take into the next world. After Life’s high-concept premise is grounded in Kore‑eda’s documentary-like approach to the material, which he shaped through interviews with hundreds of Japanese citizens. What emerges is a panoramic vision of the human experience—its ephemeral joys and lingering regrets—and a quietly profound meditation on memory, our interconnectedness, and the amberlike power of cinema to freeze time.
Hirokazu Kore-eda's After Life receives a new Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection, who present the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Encoded at 1080p/24hz on a dual-layer disc, the presentation is sourced from a recent 2K restoration.
How the film was shot, and from where the original scan was sourced, make this presentation a bit of a tricky one: taken at face value the image is not what one would probably call an ideal high-definition presentation, but the disc seems to accurately reproduce the original look of the film. In a move to save money the film was shot on Super 16mm (not 35mm as originally planned), using natural or available light in just about every scene, including scenes filmed in the darker interiors of the film’s dilapidated central setting. The source for the restoration was a 35mm duplicate negative made directly from the Super 16mm original negative, which makes things a little trickier since this will blow-up the already heavy grain structure. All of this taken together creates a dark, grainy and occasionally fuzzy looking image, limited in finer details a good majority of the time.
While this may all sound less-than-ideal for a high-def presentation it's ultimately how the film is supposed to look, at least according to Kore-eda and cinematographer Yutaka Yamazaki, so it all comes down to how well the high-def presentation and encode can translate this image appropriately without piling on any unwanted digital issues. Impressively, I feel it pulls it off.
The heavy grain and the low lighting could easily lead to a lot of digital noise, including macroblocking and possibly banding, artifacts that have reared their heads in one form or another in some of Criterion's presentations as of late. Happily, this presentation manages to keep this all mostly under control; outside of a handful of shots that do have a noisier look, including one near the end during a "screening" that is about to go underway, it's decently managed with grain, as heavy and thick as it is, keeping a mostly natural look. The image also runs the risk of looking murky or milky thanks to the light levels and that heavy grain, yet that rarely happens here; black levels are fairly deep and dynamic range is wide enough to allow some of the smaller details to be visible in the shadows of darker scenes where possible. Having said that, shadow detail is still very much limited overall in many of those darker shots, and this can lend a flatness to the image. Again, it's probably not what one would call ideal, but I'm attributing this more to the original photography.
The colour scheme is very limited, composed primarily of browns, grays, dirty greens, and so on. This ends up darkening the film even more! Yet they’re saturated well, and there are some wonderful pops at the appropriate moments, like when pink petals or sharp blue skies and/or backgrounds appear. The image has also been cleaned up impressively, and I don’t recall any blemishes showing up.
It's a rather drab looking film, much of it taking place in dark and murky settings with only a handful of moments that visually pop, yet the restoration and Criterion’s encode ultimately do a fine job handling the film’s complicated look.
Criterion includes a lossless PCM 1.0 monaural Japanese soundtrack. The film is incredibly quiet, and never strives to show off really, yet there’s still great depth and clarity present. Range is also pretty good between the quieter and louder moments and damage is not a concern. Perfectly adequate for the film.
Criterion’s special edition first sports a brand-new audio commentary featuring film scholar Linda C. Ehrlich. Ehrlich states right off gets into what she will focuse on, which is the film’s themes around memory, particularly in relation to filmmaking, along with the relationship between documentary and reality. She comes back to these themes regularly throughout the track, most of the subjects colliding through Kore-eda’s use of non-actors who (mostly) share their own personal memories within the film through a documentary interview format. Along with taking time to contextualize some aspects for Western audiences she examines the structure of several sequences, talks about the film in relation to some of the filmmaker’s other work, and even references comments around Kore-eda and his work from other filmmakers and academics. She also mentions deleted scenes during the sections they would have shown up, some of which have been included in an extra found elsewhere on the disc. It’s obviously scripted but delivered in a breezy, effortless manner, making it both entertaining and informative.
Criterion next includes three separate new interviews with director Kore-eda, and cinematographers Yutaka Yamazuki and Masayoshi Sukita, running 19, 20, and 15-minutes respectively. Though each participant adds a more personal edge during their segment, whether it be covering their earlier or later work (Sukita proudly shows off his book of photography that was yet to be released at the time of recording) or more personal stories, the details they share around the film and its production all manage to nicely circle around one-another, the three separately going over the staging and filming of scenes, working with non-actors, or the concerns around the budget, the film stock being the biggest expense since Yamazuki was going to be going around filming whatever he felt like whenever he felt like. The two cinematographers also talk about how they collaborated with the director.
Though they’re all terrific interviews I found Sukita’s the most interesting since he ended up taking on multiple jobs on the film: not only did he take production photos and even play the cinematographer that would document the characters’ memories within the film (he does appear onscreen), he also filmed a number of the memories within the film itself, though these ended up being mostly cut out. The disc does include around 17-minutes’ worth of deleted scenes, all coming from standard-definition sources. Sadly, they don’t include the excised memory sequences but they instead humourously focus a lot of time (not all) around one character, Mr. Shoda, and his retelling of his many sexual exploits. Ehrlich mentions these scenes in her commentary, commenting that she was relieved Kore-eda wisely realized it was best to cut them out. I don’t disagree with her at all, even if they’re amusing on their own here, but the cutting of this material probably led to the deletion of an amusing little moment following the screening that occurs during the last act of the film. I’m still a bit let down other material mentioned throughout the commentary and interviews hasn't been included here, but they’re still worth going through.
The disc then closes with a trailer while the included insert features an essay on the film by Viet Thanh Nguyen, who sounds to be revisiting the film for the first time since its release. That seems to fit well with the film’s themes around memories.
The deleted scenes aren’t as plentiful as I would have hoped, and Criterion didn’t see fit to include any interviews with the actors (other editions, including BFI’s own Blu-ray for the film, included interviews), but the material they do include is quite wonderful, the commentary being the best feature.
Criterion packs on some wonderful supplementary material and manage to commendably pull off translating the film’s dark and grainy image to the digital format. It’s an easy recommendation.