After Life:
Historical Knowledge and the After Life of the Photographic Image

“War, with its harvest of dead bodies, its immense destructiveness, its countless migrations, its concentration camps, and its atomic bombs, leaves far behind the creative art that aims at reconstituting it.”
-Andre Bazin “On Why We Fight: History, Documentation and the Newsreel”

When asked what the film After Life was about, not many people would explicitly attach the film to World War II, and even less to the more traumatic events of the pacific war, such as the Nanjing massacre or the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagaski. The film, at first glance, is about self-biography, and our relationships with people and society. Major historical events conspicuously influence the memories of the characters in the film, but even then the war is one among many events and little explicit mention is made of it. If one were to pay attention to the play with the nature of the image, or notice the reference to major issues of documentary filmmaking that are being dealt with (such as if you were earlier aware that the filmmaker primarily made documentaries), one might begin to tie the film in to a web of discourses that all inevitably return to the experience of World War II, and the limits it presents to representation. It does not take too much effort of association to read the film as a response to Hiroshima Mon Amour’s reference to “the horror of forgetting,” and even a connection with Schindler’s List is not far removed when it is pointed out that Schindler’s List “participates in the contested discourse of fiftieth-year commemorations marking the eventual surrender of survivor- (or veteran-) based memory to the vicissitudes of public history.”1 These are a few of the many discourses about the claims photography and film can make about representing a particular event that After Life takes part in. These issues are not only a major problem for the documentary, but also raise fundamental issues for the genre of the War film and possibly the entire filmic medium. Nevertheless, After Life operates differently than most other films made on these topics, because it is concerned not with the event itself, but the way the event presents itself through the construction of its participating subjects, and how the subject relates to these “defining moments” in their life.

More specifically, the issue After Life deals with is a two-fold question about the nature of the image. One aspect deals with the limits of representation, to what level a film is physically capable of presenting an event; the other with the ethics of representation, how the event and its participants are influenced positively or negatively by the recording. I wish to elaborate on both of these issues through the analysis of a particularly difficult image from the Nanjing massacre, which I have included in the appendix of this paper. In this photograph a smiling Japanese man stands over the bodies of several dead Chinese men with a sword in one hand and a severed head in the other. On the level of signification this photograph is an amazing example of the failure of symbolic intention. It is elaborately posed, and the man is happy to have his picture taken holding the severed head of his enemy, but from the point of view of anyone seeing the image at a later date the intention is completely separated from the effect. It is impossible for us to see what the photographer or the person photographed wanted us to see when viewing this picture. This estrangement from the image leads to either a re-contextualization of the image, depending on our emotional involvement in the event, or an indexical reading of the picture concentrating on the facticity of the event, as opposed to its symbolic purpose.2

Given the possibility of a non-symbolic reading of the image, it would seem that the image would be more historiographically meaningful. Putting aside symbolic re-contextualization for now, what does this photograph actually say about the event it depicts? First of all, in the context of the larger collection of photos of the Nanjing massacre it says that the event actually happened, which we should remember, was for a while a major issue in Japan.3 The image also shows that members of the Japanese military were comfortable enough committing this massacre that they would be willing to have their pictures taken, smiling, while in the act of slaughter, but beyond these two points the image does not say much. Furthermore the second fact creates more problems then it does answers. As opposed to clarifying the reasons for the historical event, this point leads to an epistemological black hole as it puts for a series of questions that are not only completely unanswerable within the context of this image, but challenge any sociological, psychological, historical, or even literary narrative we can create of this event. The reason being that the image indexically unifies four things that none of these narratives are comfortable unifying: modernity, community, slaughter, and pleasure. The image exposes the lack of simple answers to questions such as why these men were killed and why the Japanese man is taking part in the killing, and instead makes these basic historical questions dependent on answering the one question that borders on unanswerable, why is this man smiling?

The black hole at the center of this photograph’s historical enunciation intensifies a second fact involving the interpretive after life of the image. Whenever Nanjing is taken as a jumping off point for issues of political action, the interpretation of the event never lives up to the frighteningly illegible record of the event. One Chinese historian interpreted the event as “nothing but a major display and act of Japanese militarist bushido spirit during the early stage of the war,” while the international controversy over Japanese textbook revisions were due to the massacre being explained by “the Japanese troops suffered heavy losses. Aroused by this the Japanese troops massacred large numbers of Chinese Soldiers and civilians when Nanjing was taken, and received international criticism.”4 The photograph we have been discussing seems to lend credence to the racist view put forth by the Chinese historian as opposed to the simplistic rationalization put forth in the Japanese textbook revision or any compromise we can make between the two. Since this is not a historiographically viable answer, we are left to ask whether the photographic and filmic mediums are inherently deficient when asking questions about the motivation of an action which go beyond blaming it on the ‘nature’ of the perpetrators. Does the filmic image expose anything about the event besides its facticity, and the particular way the fact is utilized in different contexts?

Though I have been focusing on this one extreme case, the burgeoning Japanese documentary movement has been dealing with a number of issues involving the possibly problematic interactions between an individual and society and how one can justify oneself as an individual agent in a context where ones identity is constructed by an event. Some of these documentaries use subjects similarly on the outskirts of historical interpretability, such as Minoru Matsui’s Japanese Devils (Riben Guizi), and Kazuo Hara’s (in)famous documentary The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (Yuki Yukite Shingun) both dealing with Japanese war atrocities, as well Tatsuya Mori’s A and A2, dealing with the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Hirokazu Koreeda, the director of After Life, directed a number of documentaries on the loss of memory and our handling of the past, a subject less horrific than the ones mentioned above (in the common sense of the word at least), but no less subject to problems of representation. He made two films about dead husbands, one a documentary, and one a fiction film, and then directly prior to making After Life he made a film about an amnesiac. While After Life is a fiction film, Koreeda has stated more or less explicitly at points that the film is a statement on his concept of documentary ethics.5 In giving us these proscriptions though he is also laying the groundwork for understanding how the documentary can be used as historical documentation, and what the medium can provide that other historiographic forms cannot.

The premise of the film is quite simple: after people die, they spend a week with counselors, also dead, who help them pick a single memory which will stay with them eternally. That memory is then filmed, screened, and the person moves to an eternity that only consists of that one memory. The film follows eleven of the newly deceased, but also comes to involve the back-stories of a number of the councilors, who we learn are in that job because they never were able to choose a memory to take with them. The film was based on interviews with five hundred people, and the eleven newly deceased in the film are made up of a combination of actors reading prepared lines, actors ad-libbing, and non-actors telling their own stories. The stories were obviously chosen/written for a thematic purpose, because they inter-relate among themselves, and they relate as well to larger issues of the documentary that Koreeda specifies as an explicit concern. Two of the characters talk about Westernization, but they are separated by two generations and provide two different images of Westernization. The older depicts westernization in the context of her feeling of adventure, and the bonds this feeling made with her older brother, whereas the younger talks about Disneyland. The younger girl’s memory is depicted as mass produced when one of the councilors informs her that many girls have chosen the same event. The girl then changes her mind and chooses an event more personal. World War II is discussed in two contexts, one is a soldier who talks about how great being captured by the Americans was, the other is one of the councilors who died during the war. A man talks about his adventures in the red light district, a woman talks about being mistreated by men. Another woman’s favorite memory is in the sense of community directly following the Kanto Earthquake. In these stories we get multiple sides of the same event, World War II is either the main event of ones life, or the end of ones life, Westernization is either full of promise or meaningless, relationships are all multi-faceted (the man eventually chooses a memory with his family), the devastation of the earthquake ends up being happily remembered. At the same time community is vividly a part of every memory, though in one case by negation, a man who wants to forget the horrors of his life, and chooses a place he used to hide when he was a kid.

There are a number of peculiar facts about the representations of memory in this film. First of all, all the memories are surprisingly filmic, though they do not confine themselves to visual sensations. The Director mentions that when researching this film he found people’s most vivid memories were attached to sound, but he explained the attachment of other senses to the image by the example:
In After Life, the middle-aged guy who chose the city tram as his favorite memory recalls a wealth of experiences after he gets on the tram and listens to a tape of its sound. I think people recall images that are evoked by sounds, and recall sounds that are evoked by images.
Still, none of the memories in the film involved thoughts, there was no “he said he loved me” (this type of expression is in fact consciously avoided), instead there is a concentration on the fact of existence, and the proof of existence. About half the memories chosen concentrated on the sensual feeling of being alive, the man who chooses a memory from when he was a baby, the girl who chooses laying on her mother’s mothers lap and feeling the breeze, the old woman among the flowers, and more poignantly the man who talks about eating after he thought he was going to die.6 The other group of memories involved existing in relation to another. The two stories that this film ends up focusing on involve this type of memory. The man who makes a point about wanting proof of his existence and eventually chooses a memory of an inconspicuous day with his wife most clearly articulates this aspect of the memories, but this is also an part of the memories of the woman who discusses her relationship with her brother, the man who only talks about sex but eventually chooses his daughter’s marriage, and the girl who’s choice of memory is a lie about a rendezvous with a married man. This type of memory is involved in a different way in the sense of community the old woman remembers in the bamboo garden after the earthquake. Both the fact of existence, and the proof of existence in these two forms are concepts expressed best through the photographic medium’s concentration on ontology as opposed to epistimology. In After Life the ability to mummify time that has long been associated with the photographic medium, is a way for the dead to take pride in the past fact of physicality.

Another peculiarity is that there are three different types of image that lay claims on the object of memory, the memory itself, video footage of the actual event, and the event recreated as a film. Since the eventual goal of the characters in After Life is to recreate their most important memory on film, the implication is that the filmmaker is trying to say that these “recreations” hold a higher value than footage of the event or narrations from memory. This is one of the more difficult aspects of the film; it sets up two different way of depicting the event, through actuality footage and through memory narratives, and posits that neither of these two forms of depiction are as suitable for depicting the event as self-directed, filmed, re-enactments – and rather cheap ones at that. Koreeda gives some clue towards his reasoning for assessing this superiority, in regards to the superiority of the re-enactments over the actuality footage, he said:
The images from the video player are the opposite of that: they were images of real events, but you can't tell from whose perspective they are taken; images in which the subjects don't know they are being filmed. I included them in an attempt to show, "This is what I think a documentary is not." I wanted to include in that film a bold statement of my personal beliefs about documentary, that in order to become a documentary those kind of emotions and human relationships are necessary.
On the superiority of the re-enactments over the memory narratives:
I made those unrealistic fictions collide with the narratives, bringing out emotions that did not appear in the narratives, and details of memories that couldn't be talked about. That's what I personally wanted to get at. I also thought the facial expressions, the comments about memory, and the actions that came about after being filtered through those fictions made up a kind of documentary.
The first point is a basic media literacy point, since the memory re-enactments are made by the people they are about, the dignity of the subject is built into the image. The image of the person is within that person’s control, and a person cannot exploit him or herself. The second point is more counter-intuitive – he assesses the value of the re-made memories by saying that we understand more about the interior of the person through the remaking of the memory into film, than we do from his personal narrative. He does not bother to point out the paradox that his assertion is about a fundamentally exterior medium.

Here the film runs afoul of our previous interpretation of the photograph from the Nanjing massacre. The memory-films of After Life and this photograph, though different in many ways still have a number of similarities. While there is the significant difference of recording context, especially the fact that the characters in After Life knew the stakes of the images, and a difference in the narrative ability of film and photography, there are still similarities in the source of authorship, they are both self presented, the emotions of the depicted, all of whom seem pleased, and the indexical quality of the image, its source in reality. Merleau-Ponty implied in his essay “The Film and the New Psychology,” that an indexically depicted event
inherently depicted interiority of the subject:
If I try to study love or hate purely from inner observation, I will find very little to describe… (except physical feelings) which do not reveal the essence of love or hate. Each time I find something worth saying, it is because I have succeeded in studying it as a way of behaving… Anger, shame, hate, and love are not psychic facts hidden at the bottom of another’s consciousness: they are types of behavior or styles of conduct which are visible from the outside.7
If self-presented indexical images fundamentally reveal something of the interiority of the subject, it should do so in all cases, and in the Nanjing photo we are told nothing of the subjects interiority. How then can we unify this with the historiographic and aesthetic concepts of the film After Life? Or to keep a full sense of the stakes, if After Life is a film that is conceptually built on a notion of human dignity, how does it apply in a situation where human dignity is so aggressively and violently denied.

In Siegfried Kracauer’s early essay “Photography,” he discusses two different types of images of the deceased, the memory image, and the actuality image. The memory image is the image of the person that one links forever to their memory, recalling only “what has been perceived as true,” as opposed to the aspects of the person changed by time. He calls this type of image “the persons actual history,” and associates the memory image with an icon, or a painting where all the wrinkles have been removed. The actuality image is what we have been talking about thus far, images of a particular point in time that lose meaning as they age until they only depict their actuality and their historicity. Kracauer describes an interaction with a photograph of ‘grandmother’ that is disorienting because it is a photo of a woman that you have never seen before, who is wearing the strange clothes typically worn sixty years ago. He makes the point though, that our reaction to a photographic image as it becomes historical, can either be a dismissal of meaning of the facticity of history, or the disorienting of our memory image of the object. The ability to disrupt the ‘icon’ of a figure makes the historical realm a place of possibility not only in the realm of event meaning, but in the very realm of identity. The memory-films of After Life are an opportunity for the character to write his own memory image that in the after life will be his self-identity, or more explicitly, his only existence. Within these images we see the impact of the community on this individual, but the presentation of his self-memory image in the final screening room sends that image back out into the community, allowing him to justify himself not through explaining his actions, but through presenting his ideal-existence as actuality, presenting his self worth.8 Whether the memories are true or not – as one of them quite definitely isn’t – the films show how the maker relates himself to himself, or what he considers the fundamental character of his being, how he existed, or how he existed for someone. The fact that this is actuality footage, and in fact footage that exposes itself as an actuality due to its poor quality and the time distance between the event and the age of the actors, brings about an instability of the image that narration could never achieve. The character is in fact relating himself to the memory in the image, as opposed to performing the memory or seeing the actuality. What the above Merleau-Ponty quote implies is that the making of a relationship with oneself is inherently a performative act, thus cinematically visible.9

This analysis, while it does not give us any clue about what is psychologically going on in the photograph from the Nanjing massacre, it exposes a number of facets of the event itself. The man is posturing for the camera, and in doing so he is performing both for the people at the scene, the potential later viewers of the image, and also for himself. The performance for the first group is successful, the performance for the second group is a failure, and we do not know the conclusion of the self-performance. Whether or not this particular subject gave it a second thought (in those conditions it was surely a possibility that he died before he had the chance to give it a thought) this was a mass phenomenon, and thus extendable to any number of people on the Japanese front lines. After Life gives a hint at how such a figure would fit into the film’s conceptual schema with the man who “did such horrible things” that he can never mention them. Those horrible things constitute a defect on his conception of self that is so great he considers the ability to erase those memories “heaven.” The memories constitute a figurative erasure of (ideal) self, which he wishes he could turn into a literal erasure. Eventually he is done one better by being given a chance to restore ideal self. The man in the Nanjing photograph had no such opportunity, and will be forever known to history only through the inscrutable black hole of his smile. In Kracauer’s terms, the man’s history is the Nanjing massacre. The abolition of ideal self that we see vividly depicted in this image denies any simple psychology or sociology, and by relation any simple assigning of guilt. The fact that his pleasure in killing is an effect of a major historical event that takes part in an elaborate chain of historical cause and effect makes questions of guilt and innocence become either absurd, as in the racist assertion I earlier mentioned this photograph supported, or meaningless in that it supposes mass guilt, or mass innocence.10 The reading of this event in the way proscribed by After Life can only lead to a very concrete expression of the horror of annihilation. The photograph contains a subject that refuses not only a concept of ideal self, but a self at all, it is an ontological representation of hell that sucks us all into it.

I don’t mean by this essay to imply that a group psychology study of the Nanjing Massacre is doomed to failure, I have actually found a few examples of similar researches on the abolition of personality that were strikingly successful.11 I meant instead to show that this particular historical method, which has become a major focus of the Japanese documentary movement, makes strikingly clear the impossibility of positivist assertions of guilt to particular agents within communal actions. What this method draws out is the stakes of a particular historical decision. This photograph is far from singular, such images come out of almost any war which a camera takes part in. And while the situations are largely different, the fact that the semantic qualities of certain images from Abu Gharib are exactly the same as the one I have been discussing should give anyone pause. This method does not concern itself with the reasons one does or does not go to war, simply with the fact that the stakes are higher than anything that can possibly be explained in words.

1 Miriam Hansen, “Schindler’s List is not Shoah: The Second Commandment, Popular Modernism, and Public Memory,” Critical Inquiry 22:2, Chicago: University of Chicago, Winter 1996. Schindler’s List was made in 1993, After Life in 1997.
2 A photograph with a completely opposite effect of signification is Barthes example in Mythologies of the photograph of the Black soldier saluting the French flag. While one can agree or disagree with the symbolism it is presenting, indexically it is meaningless because the event it portrays is the capturing of the photograph.
3 For a discussion of this see: Daqing Yang, “The Malleable and the Contested: The Nanjing Massacre in Postwar China and Japan,” Perilous Memories, Ed. E. Fujitani, Geoffrey White, Lisa Yoneyama, Durham: Duke University, 2001.
4 Yang 73, 63.
5 See for example his interview in Documentary Box, #13, Yamagata: Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, Apr. 1999. (all quotes from Koreeda in this paper are taken from this interview)
6 Though it is not clear whether this is the memory he chooses.
7 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “The Film and the New Psychology,” Sense and Nonsense, Trans. Hubert L. Dreyfus & Patricia Aleen Dreyfus, Evanston: Northwestern, 1964. Merleau-Ponty of course is differentiating film and photography, because of films narrative capabilities. Still the point has implications for photography.
8 One might read this aspect of an ideal community as the primary reason for the councilor’s final choice of memory.
9 Siegfried Kracauer, “Photography,” The Mass Ornament, Trans./Ed. Thomas Levin, Cambridge: Harvard, 1995.
10 I am not speaking of the massacre itself, where notions of guilt are complex but need to be dealt with. I am speaking of the soldier’s enthusiastic participation in the massacre, which must be dealt with on a very different level from questions of guilt and innocence.
11 The previously mentioned A and A2 documentaries are good examples, but more striking is Patricia Steinhoff’s essay “Death by Defeatism and Other Fables: The Social Dynamics of the Rengo Sekigun Purge,” Japanese Social Organization, Ed. Takie Sugiyama Lebra, Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1992.

1 comment:

BabylonClo said...


I stumbled upon this randomly while doing a search on the Rengo Sekigun purge. What a very, very interesting essay - thank you for posting it!