Welcome to day 3 of 28 Days of Have Heaven, a short month of posts about heaven, paradise, perfection and desire, perfect places, art, theology, gardens, and more, using the Enya song “China Roses” as a jumping off point. Each post will look at these elements in itself, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may only peripherally be related. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted
One of my favourite films of all time is After Life (Wandafuru Raifu; 1998; in Japanese with subtitles). I’ve seen it seven times and could watch it on a loop, it’s so light, subtle, gentle, whimsical. It’s a meditation on so many interesting ideas: the nature of memory, the purpose of life, what makes a good life, what happens after we die, what is happiness?
The setting is a sort of waystation for the souls of the recently deceased, to be processed before entering their personal heaven, a heaven consisting of whatever single happy memory they choose to live within forever.
Each week, a new group of puzzled dead people checks in and after being oriented by their guide, who breaks the news that they have died, each has a week to choose a memory (sometimes using videotapes, which have been taken of every moment of their lives, as aids), and after staging, filming, and screening (all refreshingly low-tech), departs into their recreated memory.
A handful of people can’t choose just one memory, and some can’t choose any memory because they can’t recall a single good one; those folks don’t move on until they make a choice.
You died yesterday afternoon,” the workers say, pausing to add the appropriate amount of solemnity, before continuing, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Roger Ebert’s review (1999) of the film gives a taste of the gentleness, the quiet, the dual feeling of transcendence and the lovely ordinary:
“The people materialize from out of clear white light, as a bell tolls. Where are they? An ordinary building is surrounded by greenery and an indistinct space. They are greeted by staff members who explain, courteously, that they have died, and are now at a way-station before the next stage of their experience. …
“The film is completely matter-of-fact. No special effects, no celestial choirs, no angelic flim-flam. … It is like a transcendent version of “Ghost,” evoking the same emotions, but deserving them. Knowing that his premise is supernatural and fantastical, Kore-eda makes everything else in the film quietly pragmatic. …
“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 and 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.””
Of course, Ebert’s review and thoughts on what might be his one forever memory are all the more poignant since his cancer diagnosis in 2002, since he took his last sip and last bite and spoke his last (unaided) words in 2006, and since his death in April 2013.
A 2010 article in Esquire, “Roger Ebert: The Essential Man,” communicates Ebert’s feelings about dying and afterward:
“Ebert is dying in increments, and he is aware of it.
“I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear, he writes in a journal entry titled “Go Gently into That Good Night.” I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.
“There has been no death-row conversion. He has not found God. He has been beaten in some ways. But his other senses have picked up since he lost his sense of taste. He has tuned better into life. Some things aren’t as important as they once were; some things are more important than ever. He has built for himself a new kind of universe. Roger Ebert is no mystic, but he knows things we don’t know.
“I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.
“Ebert takes joy from the world in nearly all the ways he once did. He has had to find a new way to laugh — by closing his eyes and slapping both hands on his knees — but he still laughs. He and Chaz continue to travel. …And he still finds joy in books, and in art, and in movies — a greater joy than he ever has.”
Ebert’s way of dying is in sharp contrast to Irish writer Nuala O’Faolain’s (1940–2008), and I really appreciate both ways of going about it. O’Faolain’s response to her terminal diagnosis was grief and depression as she said goodbye to what she found meaningful and beautiful, and honesty as she faced the end of her time on earth. In an interview in April 2008 with the Irish News, less than month before she died, she said:
“I was just reading about some best-selling man who says ‘Live your dream to the end’ and so on and I don’t despise anyone who does, but I don’t see it that way. Even if I gained time through the chemotherapy it isn’t time I want. Because as soon as I knew I was going to die soon, the goodness went out of life. … For example, I lived somewhere beautiful, but it means nothing to me anymore — the beauty. For example, twice in my life I have read the whole of Proust. I know it sounds pretentious, but it’s not a bit. It’s like a huge soap opera. But I tried again the week before last and it was gone, all the magic was gone from it.”
She said that she doesn’t believe in an afterlife, or an individual creator, and goes on: Let poor human beings believe what they want, but to me it’s meaningless. … And yet I want to mention one thing that you might play at the end, particularly for dying people, … a song I heard a few years ago ‘Thois I Lar an Glanna’ — a kind of modern song sung by Albert Fry and other Donegal singers. And the last two lines are two things, asking God up there in the heavens, even though you don’t believe in him, to send you back even though you know it can’t happen. Those two things sum up where I am now. …
“I know everyone says the hair matters, but that is not true. You can put a little cap on or something for the hair. That is irrelevant compared with having to leave the world behind.”
As I said, both of these responses to dying seem valuable and true to me, Ebert’s extra valuing what’s always given him joy in this world — writing, movies, travel, humour, the memories of a lifetime (“I will require them for eternity”) — because he knows they won’t follow him into eternity, and O’Faolain’s complete loss of interest in the world and the beloved things of the world, even Proust, because it’s all being taken from her, forever. “Having to leave the world behind” is really too much to bear if you love it.
As much as I love the film After Life, the thought of living in one single (happy) memory forever sometimes strikes me as hellish rather than heavenly. I know I just said yesterday that when I am ecstatically joyful in the moment, I feel a tugging desire for the moment, the feeling, to last forever, which is exactly the desire satisfied within this film, but somehow I suspect that always feeling perfectly happy would get tiresome — or would it, because we’d have no other state to compare it to?
Which begs the question, what is heaven? Is it perfect joy? Is it feeling perfectly loved or loving (but perhaps not perfectly joyful or happy)? Does heaven need contrast or comparison to feel heavenly? Did Eden only feel like paradise after we were expelled from it?
Maybe how heavenly a single memory feels would depend on what the memory’s feelings are; somehow a complex set of feelings and attitudes seems more sustainable for all time: for me, perhaps a soupçon of poignancy, melancholy, wonder, curiosity, interest, affection, appreciation, comfort, hope, communion, gratitude, amusement, contentment, love … maybe, if it’s not cheating, even a dab of yearning.
Jack Gilbert’s poem “Beyond Pleasure” (in Collected Poems, Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) says something about this for me:
“Earth’s last picture, the end of evening
Hue of indigo and blue.
A new moon leads me to
Woods of dreams and I follow.
A new world waits for me;
My dream, my way.” (China Roses, Enya)
Some more reviews of “After Life” (several include plot spoilers)
AFTER FILM: CINEMA AND MEMORIES IN HIROKAZU KORE-EDA’S AFTER LIFE, By Michael Sloyka (Sept 2013), in The Quarterly Conversation. Quite long, detailed, and philosophical. Recommended.
How Film Remembers: After Life, at Senses of Cinema, by Kristi McKim, looking at the film with the eyes and technology of 2017
After Life review at Film Journal International, by Maria Garcia, from which: “A truthful memory of our emotions, not of the places we inhabit, allows us to ascribe meaning to our lives.
Variety review of After Life, by Derek Elley
ReelViews review of After Life, by James Berardinelli
Asian Movie Web review of After Life
BFI review of After Life, by Tony Rayns, containing multiple spoilers
All images from the film “After Life.”