Laying Out the Dead: A Performance Art
We do so easily overlook films (and books, and music, and countless other treasures!) that are not hyped to us by the familiar, relentless media promotion. Here's one that barely made it--to me, at least--past the insistent, omnipresent hype for films of much less interest and quality. It's called Departures, directed by Yojiro Takita. The acting is powerfully understated, the settings--both interior and exterior--quite beautiful, and the dialogue, insofar as I was able to determine through the subtitles, sparse but intense.
The story is that of a cellist, Daigo, brought to the realization that he will not survive professionally as a musician, who returns with his loving and dutifully tolerant wife Mika to the small town of his birth and there stumbles, out of financial necessity, into a job preparing the bodies of the dead for cremation. Initially horrified and ashamed of the work, he hides it from Mika. But he himself is soon converted as he observes the rigorous dedication of a wry and dourly affectionate boss to the tender, ritual art of caring for the dead. The bended-knee ceremony takes place on tatami mats in the presence of mourning relatives--some tearfully grief-struck, some angry, some fearful--and involves the discreet disrobing of the corpse, the re-clothing in ceremonial kimono, the making-up of the face and the reverent folding of the hands before removal into the coffin that will then be transported for cremation.
Along the way, we are offered insights into the social niceties involved, the social structure of a small Japanese town, the lovely cleansing ritual of the bath (about which I have written from first hand elsewhere. The differences between Japanese customs and our own are many, and the respect and discipline that form the basis for their social relationships are at once foreign and appealing to the American heart. The formalities create a distance that makes moments of closeness all the more surprising and intense. They remind us that love can be as deeply felt, as authentically expressed in ways other than superficial acts of intimacy. When Mika decides to leave Daigo rather than accept what she first sees as the shame of his new profession, it comes as a profound and poignant shock.
At the heart of the film is Daigo's lasting pain and anger resulting from his abandonment by his father while he was still a young boy. His love of the cello, associated with that pain, is its constant reminder. He finds in his employer and teacher--a man at once emotionally remote yet almost painfully tender--an ideal father who oversees his transition from boyish isolation and sensitivity into life as an adult with caring but undemonstrative severity. The movie's resolution--I'm not about to give it away here, and risk spoiling the film for you!--brings all these issues to full term in a way that satisfies both heart and soul.
I don't know whether this tradition of respect for the dead persists in Japan today. I suspect, as in all things, that the treatment of remains has become somewhat Americanized. This movie does, however, give pause. I do find that the recent emergence of hospice care has greatly improved the lot of the dying. That's wonderful. Both Ellie's mother and her stepmother were accorded comfort and respect as they lay dying. We have much to learn, though, from what this movie has to teach us about the respect that is equally appropriate after death. We call in the undertaker, who trundles the corpse off on a gurney, to be prepared for burial or cremation in some anonymous work space, distant from both home and loved ones. In this movie, the body is accorded loving care until extinction in the flames.
I trust that no one will be put off by this lovely film's subject matter. Take my word for it, this work makes death look really quite beautiful--of not exactly inviting!