Editor's note: "Through a Screen Darkly," a monthly commentary by CT Movies critic Jeffrey Overstreet,explores films old and new, as well as relevant themes and trends in cinema. The column continues the journey begun in Overstreet's book of the same name.
Layoffs, bankruptcy, skyrocketing unemployment. Tough times, busy days for job hunters, and everybody's got an opinion about what went wrong and how to fix it.
Movies about employment tend to give us rags-to-riches success stories: Young people with a dream overcome impossible odds and prove the naysayers wrong, earning fortune and glory through determination. But is that really the story we need right now? Maybe there's something more useful than the assurance that we'll all get our dream jobs, we'll all succeed, we'll all step into the spotlight if we just keep on trying.
This summer, two extraordinary new films offer moviegoers very different visions of success. Their characters learn hard lessons about humility, as their dreams come crashing down (in one case, quite literally). But they also learn a thing or two about finding fulfillment in something more than spotlights and paychecks.
Have you ever prepared a dead body for incineration? I doubt you'd jump at the opportunity.
But Daigo Kobayashi (played by Masahiro Motoki) is desperate, and that's the job he's been hired to do. He's just moved home from Tokyo, grieving the dissolution of the orchestra in which he was achieving his dream as a concert cellist. Now he's stuck with the bill for his expensive cello—the symbol of his failing dreams. "It's been an awkward time," he says. No kidding.
After all, this work is considered shameful in his culture. The "burakumin" were once outcasts, condemned in ancient Shinto tradition for their contact with the dead. Japan's caste system is ancient history now, but prejudice continues. Daigo's irrepressibly cheerful wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) is just one of many who may reject him for his new vocation, if his secret gets out.
Daigo's distress is the subject of Departures, the dramatic comedy (comedic drama?) that pulled off the biggest surprise of the 2009 Academy Awards, winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film over the celebrated French feature The Class (previously reviewed in this column).
And yes, I said "comedy." Daigo's work leads him into all kinds of fascinating, nerve-wracking situations, and director Yôjirô Takita stirs up some hilarious scenarios along the way. You can learn a lot about a family's secrets during those discomforting funeral ceremonies. And few jobs are more humiliating than playing the part of a dead body for an instructional video on embalming.
As funny as it is, Departures asks us to consider how working in close relationship with a community, rather than as a performer on a stage, offers rich rewards. Daigo enters into intimate hours with the brokenhearted, sharing their burden and observing their wounds, their grudges, their family secrets.
"The ritual of encoffinment is to prepare the deceased for a peaceful departure," Daigo tells the assembled families. But it's clear that he's also helping the families find peace in the midst of heartbreak and turmoil. As he prepares the bodies—a graceful and beautiful ceremony that involves undressing the deceased, washing their bodies, and posing them in positions of peace—he is helping loved ones say goodbye.
He's also learning what really matters. He observes, "What I'd always taken as my dream maybe hadn't been one after all." Facing the fragility of human life on a daily basis, he comes to care more passionately about his time with Mika. And he must reckon with the death of his mother and the absence of his father, wounds he has neglected for years.