Through a Lens Darkly
"Departures": Death, Where Is Thy Sting?
But the separation is not to last. When Mika returns a few months later, filled to bursting with the good news that she is pregnant, she is confident that the impending arrival of his child will shame the father-to-be into accepting a more "normal" line of work. Kobayashi, who has harbored a deep-seated resentment against his own dead-beat father for many years, struggles to cope with his conflicting emotions as his personal life becomes even more closely intertwined with his professional activities.
In a resolution that is wonderfully apt (if perhaps a trifle too tidy for complete plausibility), the young couple becomes drawn more-closely together by the very ceremonies that previously pushed them apart. After a lifetime of anger and denial, the young comforter finds himself in need of comforting, and what has been nothing more than a ritualistic exercise in the past becomes deeply personal. In the striking final scene, life and death are brought together into a wonderful simultaneity, as both husband and wife are transformed through their grief and resignation.
The story is spiritual rather than religious. Kobayashi participates in ceremonies for nearly every denomination, suggesting that his role as nokanshi is primarily a cultural one. But the film is also unashamed and uncompromising in its clear belief that death is far from the end of all things. As one character puts it, "Death is like a gateway. Dying doesn't mean the end. You go through it, and on to the next thing." For a society increasingly obsessed with extending life no matter the cost, the characters' matter-of-fact, fearless acceptance of their wholly natural worldly demise is both refreshing and inspiring.
We humans, despite our best efforts to the contrary, struggle constantly against the notion that death is the conclusion of a story, rather than the gentle pause that comes at the end of a chapter. No wonder we are terrified and undone by its impending arrival. But as "Departures" reminds us so beautifully, it is the recognition of death as a single step along the endless path of life—an understanding that the span of our worldly days can only be properly understood in the context of a far greater work, penned by a far greater Writer than ourselves—that lies at the heart of our ability to accept it without fear.
May we all be granted the comforting grace of this understanding as we draw ever-nearer to that gate which awaits us all.
Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. He blogs at Crisis Magazine, where he also contributes feature articles on a variety of topics.