Monday, 16 January 2012

Vulture: Life in Death: 'Departures' and 'Never Let Me Go'

There's been a dearth of life affirming cinema of late; maybe it's a sign of the times; everything seems to come with a knowing nod and wink. Are we becoming too cute, too knowing and arch for our own good? 
I had an enlightening weekend; catching up on missed episodes of 'Six Feet Under' and watching two films that got the heart pumping again, got me gulping and reaching for the tissues and a good hug. 
My favourite music moves me (you can't beat a sad song) and most of my best loved films are emotionally involving, though not necessarily intellectually taxing; Once Upon a Time in America, Cinema Paradiso etc (it must be the Morricone effect). 
Interestingly, the two films that nailed me these past two nights were both of Japanese origin: 'Departures' and 'Never Let me Go'. Both are concerned with death and survival but are totally bereft of cynicism; maybe there's a cultural integrity to the Japanese (bordering on naiveté) that precludes the dark humour which seems to cast its shadow over much of modern Western cultural life.
'Departures' details the struggles of a young cellist (Daigo played by Masahiro Motoki) whose orchestra is dissolved. Jobless, he returns to his provincial hometown with his young wife and, desperate, takes a job as an undertaker. The Japanese take on this profession is different to ours; Daigo is to become a kind of 'gatekeeper' who publicly prepares the deceased for the hereafter in the presence of their grieving families. At first he is embarrassed by the taboos of this new profession, indeed keeps it a secret from his wife; but the grace and precision that is brought to bear by his employer and mentor gradually engulfs him; the precise rigours of the ritual eventually become him and, by learning to deal with death, Daigo regains control of his own life. This could all become pat and mawkish but it's dealt with skillfully by director Yojiro Takita and screenwriter Kundo Koyama and subtly performed by the brilliant cast; the music tugs too but never cloyingly; the cello's voice is a sublime affirmation of life's ultimate journey.
I mentioned 'Six Feet Under' because the subject matter is similar; for me the success of 'Six Feet Under'  comes from the flashes of humanity and empathy that strike as bolts from the blue against the black comedy; the vulnerabilities of the quirky (and often unsympathetic) characters make you root for them all the more. With 'Departures' there is a quiet dignity and calm control, a veneer that occasionally cracks, and what is revealed is profoundly moving and involving; we are all inevitably exposed by grief; tenderness and care are required but not always given genuinely... here there is a reverence extended that makes the protagonists appear as gentle spirits; the physical precision of the "Okuribito" (literally "the person who sees off") and the ceremony's repeated choreography of gesture and touch (all a part of what is ultimately a last dance) make us connect with the departed as much as the living. And this respect for the dead makes us celebrate what it is to be alive.

Kazuo Ishiguro's novel 'Never Let Me Go' needed to be distilled into a screen play and is done so with much integrity and care; the understated performances, the muted palette of the cinematography, the plaintive soundtrack, all contribute to this melancholic meditation on the transience of life. There's not a lot of joy here; the morality of this imagined modern world is as chilling as it is horrific, but at the heart of the story is a love of life and a clinging need to live it well. Carey Mulligan is subtly excellent here, even the normally over egging of a pouting Keira Knightly is reigned in to produce a fine performance. 
To detail the (surprisingly simple) plot would spoil things for those who haven't yet seen the film or read the book. Suffice it to say that 'Never Let Me Go' echoes 'Departures' in it's affirmation of life, the importance of 'healing' and acceptance of death. All of this is done with the keen eye of a foriegn sensibility, which makes us take stock and regard the mundanities of life afresh. 
Both works attest that our complicated lives lead us all to the same place and the sooner that we come terms with that simple truth, the better. Accomplishment is vital, suffering inevitable, but life should be celebrated as a joyful journey. 
Maybe the one word that haunts both of these beautifully controlled pieces is 'atonement'.

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