I have just watched an extraordinary film. Moving, beautiful and life-affirming; at one moment hilariously funny and at the next acutely uncomfortable: extraordinary is the only word that will cover it.
Departures is a Japanese film directed by Yojiro Takhita, an Oscar bid in 2008. It tells the story of a young man who looses his job as an orchestra cellist and returns to his home town with his young wife. He is desperate for work of any kind and replies to an advert that sounds like a travel agency. He is hired before he realises that dealing with ‘departures’ actually means dealing with the ‘departed’. Taken on as an apprentice in ‘casketing’ he is taught how to prepare bodies for their cremation, but not in some back room of a funeral parlour rather through an intensely moving ritual performed in front of the grieving relatives in which the body of their loved one is washed and dressed with the utmost tenderness and respect, before being laid into the casket.
Daigo is initially appalled by the idea of handling dead bodies (his wife even more so) but he comes to realise the healing power of this simple but profound ritual in the lives of those who call for his services. The biggest surprise of all is the healing power it has in his own life…
Given that it had almost as many corpses as characters and a huge cast of grieving, angry, distressed, hysterical relatives, it neither descended into despair nor gave way to ‘schmaltzy’ sentimentality. Yes, you probably will cry, but those tears will not have been manipulated out of you by cinematic contrivance. Instead, like a deeply vibrating note from Daigo’s cello (the music is beautiful), the film simply portrays some of life’s bleakest moments and your own memories and emotions cannot help but resonate. That makes it sound like an experience you’d be unlikely to want to pay for but this is a really great film, I’d encourage you to see it. Especially if, like me, you have any part to play in funerals ( I promise you, taking an Anglican funeral will seem like a walk in the park compared to this!)
If you’ve ever given birth you’ll no doubt remember the intensely intimate and dependant relationship you had with your midwife during labour and being the professional taking a family through a funeral is a similar kind of privelege, only at the other end of life.
Departures turns out not to be a story about loss at all but rather a story about embracing life, something we can only do when we equally embrace our losses and griefs.
I loved it. It’s slow-moving and visually very beautiful (I felt as if I’d visited Japan) and also culturally fascinating. It spoke eloquently about the value and power of ritual to allow us to articulate our grief. No wonder it is the emotionally constrained Japanese who have formulated this extraordinary ceremony.
Why didn’t it depress me? It was a film full of funerals after all. Because, as one of the friends who watched it with me said, ‘it was full of hope’. It wasn’t a neatly articulated hope, succinctly expressed in some slick soundbite: but it was the hope that relationships are more important than achievement, individual lives count and love matters more than anything.
Something else has given me hope this week. I have been reading a Christian ‘apologetic’ book. That strange term is simply the name we give to a piece of writing that defends a set of beliefs. This one is a recent book by Tom Wright called Simply Christian. There are very few really good apologetic books: they are either too obscure to be of any use to anyone not prepared to take a crash course in theology or so simplistic and formulaic they make the Christian God sound predictable, containable and more like a slot machine (‘line up the oranges and you have won eternal life’!) than the wild, mysterious, boundless God I believe him to be.
However this book is shaping up to be different. So far the author has not insulted my intelligence but has required of me a reasonable knowledge of the forces that have shaped the culture of western societies for the last few hundred years. (A Radio 4 listener would cope). I confess I’m only 4 chapters in but so far he has approached the whole idea of belief in God as if it were a reasonable idea based on the ‘echo of a voice’ that we all hear in our common human experiences. Experiences such as: our shared desire for justice in the world, combined with our common frustration that the world is not a safe or fair place and that this is largely due to our own inability to make it so. The fact that we all value relationships most of all but we all screw them up as well. The fact that we appreciate beauty but everything turns to dust eventually. The fact that death feels like an aberration, the sense that we were made for something more, that this can’t be all there is. To me, these seems like good places to start the process of wondering whether there is an ‘other’ somewhere in the universe who tells us this is not how it was meant to be and calls us to a relationship we can’t screw up (because it depends on someone whose love will never fail us) and a life that doesn’t end as ashes in an urn.
The book reminded me why I am a Christian. The film reminded me why I’m glad to be one. In the face of loss and grief or the brevity and seemingly random misery of life and death, everyone finds a ‘something’ to hang on it. In Christianity I’ve found not a ‘something’ but a someone who offers me hope. And this hope is not some wimpy bit of wishful thinking but something far more substantial and active. The Bible calls it a ‘sure anchor for the soul’, it’s the hope that there is a God, he did make us for more than just this life and he does like us.
If you prefer to hear Tom Wright speak you can listen to a series of lectures called ‘Simply Christian: why Christianity makes sense’ on YouTube start at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWn-vt7SeNo