A striking comparison between Departures, another Japanese masterpiece, and Rabbit Hole, a didactic manifesto of Scientology, released by Lionsgate, is nonetheless fair since they both deal with the emotional as well as cultural and philosophic views of death, not as personified as a character, in the style of Bjergman’s Seventh Veil or as a principle of denouement, as in Hamlet, Romeo and Juliett or Julius Ceasar, but death, as we know it.
If academics can legitimately deconstruct a symphony into a set of representative, constituent repeated and transformed harmonic progressions, it is not unreasonable to examine and compare two films by looking at their representative, constituent elements. This practice will reflect badly on academic exercises if readers get the idea that the formulae extracted from such analyses can be employed in making films rather than understanding that they are only a way of refining their ability to perceive subtle distinctions. Distinctions about relationships of complex sounds in music are experiential, not conceptual, so this analogy between deconstruction of complex musical forms and even more complex visual and aural imagery is limited. The latter involves some clearly conceptual elements that are not present in music, except in anthems.
Deconstructing Departures and Rabbit Hole, beginning with their respective first frames, we encounter musical forms that define both films and the differences between their music parallels most differences between the two examples of narrative cinema. In both cases, the opening music tells us these stories will be emotionally stressful and in the end, all will be resolved, more or less. In Rabbit Hole, music tells us this with a short sequence of chords on plucked strings–in a chord progression that is traditional in popular music, something like I-IV-V7-I; tonic, subdominant (mild dissonance), dominant seventh (leading tone dissonance), resolving tonic. In Departures, to the contrary, although the music informs us that things will be alright in the end, we get that, just as in life, this may mean coming to terms with loss. So the music in Rabbit Hole telegraphs the emotional conclusion in the opening frames while, in Departures, the protagonist’s voice, as the narrator, introduces the narrative in a personal, idiomatic statement that, with music as an overture, forecasts a journey, the conclusion of which may be, like the music, open to variations, modulations and suspense: we can expect the unexpected.
Philosophically, Rabbit Hole deals with the subject of death in terms of resolving grief and the story illustrates a conceptual resolution according to the principles of Scientology (which makes a religion of science), while offering no resolution for the emotional sorrow of loss. We are offered only brief glimpses of the departed in strident sequences fraught with painful emotion. Departures, to the contrary, includes the experience and expression of grief for the departed through a broad array of relationships and offers a philosophical resolution that includes death within life without conceptual religious ideology, thereby weakening the effect of the distinction between the living and the dead that is exaggerated by our feelings of loss, which shows up as lost opportunity to share life (the past is beyond loss). Both films offer solace that the departed may exist in a different state but Departures presents emotional redemption through a social ritual, whereas, in Rabbit Hole, the protagonist is pointedly alone, with no recourse but to accept grief or deny her own existence.
The ritual in Departures allows an expression of love for the departed in a profound, sensitive acknowledgment, literally, through art, whereas, in Rabbit Hole, although there is the conceptual solace of scientific superstition, there is no celebration of the departed, and no employment of art in the resolution. Departures is therefore, a paen to art, an extraordinary idea and one that the music, by Joe Hisiashi supports. Music, as well as the imagery and script in Departures is more complex and demanding of actors, artists and craftspeople, it’s a generally more challenging production that succeeds, after all, it won an Academy Award in 2008, however, I sometimes wanted to hear someone like Yoyo Ma performing, perhaps, on variations of baroque or romantic pieces, and sometimes, something distinctly Japanese.