I watched this movie with a few friends last week when everyone was snowed in during Storm Nemo. I really enjoyed the movie not only because I learned something new about Japanese culture and society and enjoyed the performances of the cast, but also because it brought up a topic that I haven’t spent very much time thinking about: death and the mortality of man.
Daigo is the protagonist who loses his job as a cellist in an orchestra. He and his wife, Mika, move to small town where Daigo finds a job preparing the dead for funerals. The first job he does involves carrying out the corpse of an old woman who had been dead for 2 weeks. He reacts so strongly to the smell and to the whole situation that the viewer can’t help but laugh. The viewer also can’t help but laugh because it breaks the discomfort: we realize that we would have reacted in the same way as Daigo. But after he sees his boss perform a few ceremonies, Daigo sees the power that preparing the dead has on the grieving family and he is captivated by this job.
Soon his wife finds out and is disgusted by what he is doing and tells him to find a normal job. He responds that death is normal. She doesn’t like his word games and makes an ultimatum: choose the job or choose me. Daigo chooses not to quit and she leaves town. Soon, other characters also show their distaste for the job that he has found for himself. But throughout this process, Daigo continues to glimpse the importance of preparing the body of the deceased, honoring their life and preserving their dignity, and allowing the bereaved to have an opportunity to say a final good bye.
It was at the death of a mutual friend that his wife finally saw her husband in action. She and the family experience the power of the whole process and are truly thankful for Daigo and the service he provided.
The movie culminates and ends with Daigo preparing the body of his father who left the family when he was 6 years old. It was an emotional scene when other undertakers come and rush through the preparation and don’t treat the body with respect. He and his wife rise in protest and command them to leave. The viewer by this time also becomes uncomfortable at how the undertakers treat the deceased. The viewer becomes one with Daigo and his wife. The wife says to the others, “My husband is a professional.” This marks her change from the position she held before. And she speaks for the viewer as well. We want to see Daigo at work, not some hasty, disrespectful undertakers.
1. One thread in the movie is the transformation of skeptical characters and the viewer in regards to the whole process. We go from disgust and discomfort to honor, respect, and appreciation of the beauty of the whole process. There becomes a hallowing of the deceased, and conversely, there is an increased respect for life and the living. It’s as if to say that it is in the appreciation of the dead and in the full acknowledgment of death that we can begin to understand life and what it means to live.
2. Another theme is that in death the living finally see the deceased truly for who they are. It is most telling when Daigo finished the preparation of a transgendered young man. After the service and preparation, the father of the deceased thanked them. He said, “When I saw his smile, I knew that this was my son.” The father then crumples to the ground overwhelmed with emotion. As I was watching the movie, part of me became frustrated. I thought, “Why does it take until death to see the person for who they are? Have you not wasted so much time in worrying and fighting about things that don’t matter? Now that the person is dead, is not this recognition of who he or she was too little too late? The bereaved must be filled with so much regret.”
3. Another theme is that of the afterlife. This funeral agency prepares the dead for people from all faith backgrounds. They don’t discriminate. If anything, death is the ultimate common denominator for mankind. No matter what ethnicity, religion, culture, or class, we have death in common. Not all may treat the dead with respect, but I really appreciate what their agency tries to do: honor and maintain the dignity of the deceased.
In regards to the afterlife, the man who works at the crematorium makes the most extended treatise on the subject in the movie. He says that death is a gate into the next stage. As the operator of the furnaces, he sees himself as the gatekeeper, sending people into the next stage. It is with hope that he says this. And as the viewer, it is a hope that we desire to hold on to as well, the hope that death is not the end. But I also wish to challenge this view a bit. How does this man know that what he says about the afterlife is true? Is his sentiment just wishful thinking? Is it grounded in any truth or reality? Is what he says something to ease his own conscience and to provide comfort to himself and others? And does it actually matter if what he says is true or false?
4. The last theme that I want to mention is that of abandonment. The dead leave the living behind. The movie deals with this theme on a few different levels. On a personal level, this is most noticeable in the fact that Daigo’s father left him when he was 6 and there was no subsequent contact. Daigo’s mother also died and he wasn’t able to be there with her when she died. He wrestles with coming to terms with his father’s abandonment. And beyond the beauty of the funeral ceremonies, perhaps it is each family’s wrestling with the abandonment of their deceased that is cathartic for Daigo. Through helping others come to terms with the abandonment of the deceased, he, himself, confronts the emotions that he has for his father.
I was confused at the end of the movie because there is a moment when Daigo realizes that his father has not forgotten him. It softens his heart and it is a tremendously healing experience for him. But as I was watching it I thought, “Just because your father hasn’t forgotten you all these years doesn’t excuse him of the fact that he abandoned you and has never tried to regain contact.” As this revelation changed how he thought of his father, perhaps it is the start of a journey of healing for Daigo as he continues to wrestle with the abandonment that he has experienced in his life.
Death is an uncomfortable subject for me to think about. As a Christian, I feel embarrassed that it is something I haven’t spend more time contemplating. I have not seen a dead body. I have not been to a funeral. The only family that I’ve lost was my maternal grandfather. (I visited his grave in China a couple years after he passed away.) I brushed death twice in my life. Once when I was 18, I totaled my car on the highway. Another when I was 24, I drank too much alcohol, blacked out, and woke up in my own vomit. Both would have been inglorious ways of leaving this world. But besides those two instances, I seldom contemplate the subject of death and human mortality. However, those instances have taught me that I could die at any time. There is no guarantee that I would make it to an old age. There is no guarantee that my death would be a dignified one. They also taught me that life is too short to do things that I don’t want to do. (I acknowledge that the previous statement is dripping with privilege: it is a reality that not everyone has.) The two encounters have also taught me that the time that I do have on this earth ought not be wasted.
As a Christian, I believe that life is a gift from God: Father, Son and Spirit. With this life, God the Father invites us into relationship with himself through Christ Jesus in the Spirit. And in this mystery of human/divine partnership, God desires to work through his people to accomplish His works of healing and restoration. The needs of humanity are too great. But I pray that my life can contribute toward the betterment of humanity. And I hold on to the hope that those who labor with the Lord do not labor in vain.