Ultimatum

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the movie “Departures”. The main character (Daigo) takes on a job as a “Nokan-shi”, a person who performs the ritual of “encoffinments” which consists of washing the body, putting on a new kimono and putting make up on the face. Daigo didn’t know what exactly the job was about before going in for an interview – he answered a classified ad entitled “Departures”, thinking it must be some kind of travel agency, only to discover the true nature of the job. The employer somehow talked him into “trying the job for a few days”. When he came home, he told his wife that he found a job, but he didn’t tell her the whole truth. He let her believe that it was a job at a wedding sugchapel. For a while, he sneaked around to conceal the truth as he was not ready to tell her, which created comical scenes in the movie, but in their lives it created distance between the couple. When Daigo’s wife finally found out what he has actually been doing, she was furious. She asked him why he didn’t tell her, and he said “I didn’t think you’d approve”. Sure enough, she didn’t think it was a good profession for her husband, and she gave him an ultimatum that it will be either life with her without that job, or vice versa. In wife’s mind, he could not have both. He couldn’t respond to her accusation of not being truthful, because it was true that he was not being honest with her. In my opinion, he himself was not yet fully comfortable doing that job. He had started seeing the beauty and value of the job by the time his wife found out, but it had not become his identity yet, or, he might still have been resisting the idea of becoming a professional “Nokan-shi”. Initially, he’d had some reservations about the job, believing the stigma such as “Nokan-shi” aren’t clean people as they touch dead bodies daily, or  they are greedy as they make (good) money off of dead people, and that there is no honor in doing this job. Because he himself was not convinced that this was what he was meant to do, it was almost impossible to convince his wife to believe that. It was like asking other people to see what he was not seeing. In that sense, having someone you love disagree with your choice of profession is a great opportunity to test how serious you are about the thing you think you want to do. Like late professor Randy Pausch said in his infinitely quotable Last Lecture, “brick walls are there for a reason: they let us prove how badly we want things”. If the brick walls turn out to be your significant other, what do you do? To answer this question, it is imperative to first make sure that whatever you are after is worth risking the relationship with the love of your life.

Interestingly, how the story developed after this scene was somewhat typical in our (Japanese) culture. It didn’t show too much of discussion between Daigo and his wife, as it moved onto the next scene, implying that the wife had left him. The story went on and showed Daigo lets his action do the talking. He kept at the job until he almost perfected the movements of the ritual, and it became clear that it is what he wants to do. While I was satisfied with the ending of this movie, I couldn’t help but think about another piece of this puzzle. Let’s assume that you have done your homework and know for sure that what you want to do is your life’s mission. What does it tell you about the relationship, if your significant other forces you to decide between him/her and the pursuit of your dreams? Is it fair to say that if my partner gives me such ultimatum, he does not love me unconditionally? It reminded me of a scene from Gray’s Anatomy, an American TV show. In one episode, one of the surgeons told the chief that she’d have to pass up a great opportunity because her husband (with whom she has a son) gave her ultimatum. If she took that position, he’d walk away from their marriage. She knew what she wanted, she believed that she was meant to take that opportunity, but in the end she walked away from it. She walked away, not because she chose the marriage, but rather, she decided to end her marriage. In her mind, the relationship can not be based on such ultimatum. She no longer wanted to be in a married relationship with a person who asks her to give up a part of her identity and her dreams. She could have taken the opportunity if she was willing to let go of her marriage, but she realized that she could not take the opportunity while being a single mother at the same time, as this new position required her to work even longer hours. In the end, she chose to walk away from both her marriage and the opportunity, as she did not want to spend less time with her son. I see tremendous strength and self-worth in her. She’d rather be on her own with no one, than not being herself with someone. In her case, the brick walls she faced and decided not to overcome turned out to be “time with her son”. It is not for me to say if she has made the right decision or not – only she can decide that. But the two different stories made me think about what unconditional love means, and what I would do if I was ever put in that position. I hope I will never have to find out.

2 comments on “Ultimatum

  1. Great write up Etsuko.

    You know, what made this a noteworthy movie is that there are a number of posts that could be written for each of the mini-lessons that are built into the story of Departures.
    The ‘Ultimatum’ situation is a good point, and a well-known conundrum that we all can wonder and muse on.

    [WARNING: I’m writing some spoilers below. Please watch the movie first before reading.]

    Normally one would choose their wife over an odd job (no pun intended), but there was a powerful force at play attaching Daigo to the job; which was realizing the massive value he brought to an entire grieving family through peace-of-mind and a sense of closure. For example, when they were late for the one appointment, the one family member was extremely angry, but after the ritual, he was very thankful to tears. Daigo saw the importance and impact, and the valuable service he was able to provide, which no other job could do, at such a level. And there was the other case where the one man (the public bath owner’s son) scoffed at Daigo and poignantly advised him to change occupations, but later, after performing the ritual on that same man’s own mother, imparted a great sense of respect and thankfulness on Daigo.

    Surely the lack of communication between the couple prevented Daigo’s wife from seeing the metamorphosis her husband was going through. This is a good lesson here for us in real life (and also makes great friction in the storyline of a movie).

    And the extension of that lesson is when the wife travels with him to observe the ritual with her own eyes, then it becomes obvious to us, that, what an amazing 180 our mindset can do once we’re enlightened with the critical information of why the other party behaves as they do. Like an epiphany, the wife came to realize and understand why her husband stood so strong for keeping this job and defending it’s legitimacy.

    So maybe when we find ourselves in an ultimatum, (and we know we will again on some level), we should tell ourselves that maybe we don’t have enough information yet, and should try digging deeper into our partner’s core motives. I think this could include expressing to them verbally what we think we’ve interpreted their motives to be based on what we know at the particular time.

    Maybe breaking the impasse of ultimatums will actually evolve into deeper understandings of each other. A kind of blessing in disguise. 🙂

    Wow, I’m getting deep here. lol. Amazing what life lessons can be gotten from some movies!
    Thanks for the viewpoint Etsuko.

  2. Thank you for your comment! I actually had written what you said about his wife seeing the value finally when she had the opportunity to see him perform, but I was afraid that might spoil things for the readers. Now I know how to get around that 🙂 You said it beautifully and I couldn’t agree with you more about the communication. I also agree that a great movie gives us lots of great inspirations.

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