@synth_cinema: Review Roundup - After Life


Review Roundup - After Life


AKA How Do You Live, a title which in a way reflects the tone of a story centred around personal loss. It's also a film which brings a lot of the director's earlier projects together in one place. Between 1984 and 2001 Hayao Miyazaki has been involved in some of the greatest animated films of all time. Not everything was perfect but everyone will have a personal favourite. Some fans are even enamoured with his later projects after Spirited Away, which shows the appeal of his sensibilities. However, in a story which covers everything from wartime tragedy, time warping alternate dimensions, and a whole lot of talking animals, this is a movie that avoids being too lightweight but often feels too unwieldy; in both length and scope.

A striking prologue suggests that Miyazaki has decided to take on board some of the impressionistic flair used by his late colleague Isao Takahata. This harrowing vision shows Mahito (Soma Santoki) racing to try and reach his hospital ridden mother after a fire in the building. He's unable to do anything about the inferno which robs him of being able to say goodbye. The bystanders warp and blur as if seen through a child's nightmare, or a child's tears. There's a fresh energy to the whole set piece which feels like something new for the now eighty-three year old film-maker. But it's also the last sequence that has this kind of clearly defined style before the rest of the film starts to crib from far more familiar territory.

Following the death of his mother, and the marriage of his father to her sister Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura) Mahito is moved to a rural estate. Here he has to deal with unfriendly school children, the overwhelming grief, and the arrival of a half-sibling. Which is before we're shown what his father Shoichi (Takuya Kimura) does for a living as a warplane factory owner. This early chapter is very slow and lacks a proper sense of pacing, but it's filled with images that push Mahito towards a growing despair. But as a protagonist he's often opaque beyond feeling sad and isolated. The interesting aspect of his personality arrives when he decides to skip school, suggesting that he's got a deceptive side and needs attention his family isn't providing.

Or at least that's one reading of the situation. In reality this first act offers a lot of food for thought but few of these details ever come back around to feel fully formed in any kind of arc. The plane canopies being manufactured hold a certain allure to the young boy's mind, but this moment of naivety isn't expanded on. Troops leaving for war are seen once or twice but only early on. His classmates are never revisited and his actions don't have repercussions. Perhaps it's asking too much of a story in the vein of The Wizard of Oz (or perhaps Labyrinth) but it spends a lot of time before on these details before any major fantasy elements are introduced. Which means that it's up to a tale of talking birds and mysterious towers to deliver any kind of real depth via subtext alone.

Which, in a way, is perfectly fine. Mahito is frequently pestered by a grey heron (Masaki Suda) who claims that his mother is waiting in the land of the dead. Which doesn't make a lot of sense until Natsuko goes missing near the same derelict tower in the local forest. At first Mahito decides that it's easier to shoot the heron with a bow, but soon he becomes trapped in a fantasy world full of even more avian life. Perhaps the story isn't about family loss but is instead a tale of the cruelty of natural, or even the food chain. Ideas about unborn spirits, starving pelicans, and even savage bird themed civilisations are thrown in thick and fast. But along the way it starts to become more an exercise in visual madness instead of a character study.

Which, again in a way, is perfectly fine. The whole yarn jumps gleefully from eerie cosmic horror to eccentric fantasia between set pieces filled with strange faceless figures and beautiful backdrops. The natural world is twisted as voices from the beyond say 'join us' and prehistoric fish are boiled to feed rather familiar looking critters. It's more The Cat Returns than The Evil Dead, but the shifting tone is notable. While surprises are lacking in a general sense it's interesting to see this kind of fare become darker, or even gruesome, when necessary. If what's being presented is partially a vision conjured up by a troubled boy it makes sense, just don't expect any sort of cohesive narrative.

The conclusion of the journey hinges on a pretty vague thesis about construction of the future while letting go of the past. Whimsy can only carry it so far before it stumbles to a rushed final note. In the end there are a lot of hints and subtle moments that may be more rewarding on repeat viewings. But as it stands it's rather meandering without ever saying that much one way or another. Notions about this whole journey being a way to escape war are danced around when the ending fails to revisit the family factory. Ideas about adoptive families and personal rejection are skimmed over in a similar fashion. Even the core theme of addressing death by accepting that life should be appreciated while it lasts is oddly unfocused by the time it reaches the two hour mark. 

Ultimately the character designs and creatures are very memorable, and the Joe Hisaishi music is as melancholy as ever. Purely as a colourful, and personal, project for the director and a way of summarising a lot of his past movies there's a lot to like. Whether he considers himself the tragic protagonist or the secluded wizard trying to set up a foundation for future generations to build on is just one more aspect to consider. It's not in any way another bizarrely limp Earthsea kind of effort, but it's very uneven and often cryptic. Perhaps this is all an inspirational way of trying to avoid another one of those releases, after all the past dictates the future. If this is his much talked about final movie (which given his track record at this stage is very unlikely) it's an interesting coda.