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The Poetry of Death: Jisei and Kore-eda’s After Life

Recently, I read an exquisitely curated collection of jisei—Japanese death poetry. It was a thoroughly engrossing volume, offering unique insight into man’s relationship with his own mortality. This illuminating glimpse into a cultural practice with which I was only vaguely familiar (I was aware of the verses composed by samurai before committing seppuku, but not much else) in turn contextualized the central themes of one of my favorite movies: Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life.

Like Professor Yoel Hoffman’s book, the film explores core tenets of Buddhist philosophy: transience, impermanence, and the rejection of self. The plot revolves around the premise that the souls of the newly deceased are permitted to choose just a single memory to carry with them into the hereafter. Rather than selecting concrete moments in time, however, most of the characters prefer to retain emotionally evocative sensory images: the fragrant petals of cherry blossoms dancing in the breeze, the cottony texture of clouds drifting past the window of an airplane, the scent of laundry detergent on a childhood blanket.

The jisei poet’s final impression of this fleeting, illusory world is likewise deeply personal; after all, the details that he commits to paper immediately prior to his departure cannot help but be significant. When he gazes out the window, what does he notice? Are the flowers in the field wilted and withered, mimicking his aged flesh? Or are they freshly bloomed—a symbol of renewal, rejuvenation, rebirth? Does morning dew glisten on the grass, or has it already evaporated in the midday heat? Are the cicadas singing amongst the treetops, or have they long since fled, their discarded husks clinging to the bark?

Such observations are not recorded for the benefit of the living; they belong to the authors alone—keepsakes, talismans, mementos intended to ease their passage to the shore beyond this material plane of existence. And despite my skepticism regarding matters of faith, I must admit that I find Kore-eda’s elaboration on this notion to be quite compelling.

For what could be more comforting than an eternity spent in the blissful embrace of one instant of happiness?

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