Daring to hope in spite of death’s grim reality

Justine Toh reflects on two documentaries that examine the death.

Settling in to watch Death of a Japanese Salesman and Dreams of a Life feels similar to rifling to the back of a book to see how it ends before reading it.

For we know from the outset of both documentaries, which screened at the 2012 Sydney Film Festival, that Tomoaki Sunada and Joyce Carol Vincent are dead. The real question is how they got that way.

In Death of a Japanese Salesman, it's no great mystery. Tomoaki Sunada, a recently retired salaryman, receives a grim prognosis: his abdominal cancer means he will not have much longer to live. And so Mami, his filmmaker daughter, documents the last months of his life as the practical businessman arranges his final affairs.

The death of Joyce Carol Vincent, however, couldn't be more mysterious. Dreams of a Life opens with reports of the discovery of a woman's remains in a London apartment – three years after she died.

Through interviews with friends, ex-boyfriends and colleagues, as well as dramatised re-enactments of Vincent's life, the film speculates on what led to the lonely death of the attractive, charismatic and outgoing Londoner. While the police ruled out foul play, the burning question remains: why did no one notice?

The story so haunted filmmaker Carol Morley that she posted ads across Britain appealing for anyone with connections to Vincent to come forward and share their stories of her. The result is a patchwork of recollections of the beautiful, secretive woman at the centre of the tale, which makes Dreams of a Life part detective story, part tribute to Vincent's memory, and part rumination on modern alienation.

At the centre of both films lies the grim reality of death. Life is so good for many of us that it's hard to confront its inevitable end. So we ignore death, or at least keep it as sanitised and out of sight as possible, or try to dull its sting with hollow platitudes. We are, on the whole, ill-prepared to face the end of our lives.

Sunada's response to his ultimate deadline is to treat it as “the last great project of my life”. He composes and then carries out items on his 'ending notes' – a cross between an informal will and a bucket list. He wants to play with his grandchildren, enjoy an abalone dinner for the last time, and consult a priest. He wants to get baptised, although not to secure a last-minute ticket to paradise but because the church charges a competitive rate for funeral services. Episodes like this provoke as much gentle humour as bewilderment at Sunada's relentlessly organised approach to death.

But even if Sunada micro manages his final affairs, he isn't heartless about dying. As the end of his life draws near, he gives thanks: to his doctor, to his grandchildren for bringing such joy into his life, to his 94-year-old mother for everything – he even apologises for dying before her. Sunada also completes his ending notes by telling his wife that he loves her, an especially moving scene given their late rediscovery of their mutual affection. It's only then that her quiet reserve gives way to a flood of tears: “If only I had known how lovely you are.”

Vincent's death, on the other hand, seems to have taken her by surprise. When she was found in 2006, the television was still on and half-wrapped Christmas presents were strewn across the floor. Though the film imaginatively reassembles Vincent's life, we're left to wonder how it ended: was her death swift and painless, or did she suffer? Was she lonely? Was there time for regrets or gratitude? What happened to her?

The film doesn't deal with such questions, but indirectly gestures to them in what we learn about Vincent's life. It turns out that she tended to drift in and out of people's lives – and maybe this was why she lay undiscovered for so long.

The film reveals a life that was incomplete in many ways: relationships were left dangling, friendships cut off. Vincent had trouble trusting people, said a friend, and didn't like letting others in. And during a hospital stay Vincent apparently listed her bank manager as her next-of-kin – a fact that crushes Martin, her homely ex-boyfriend. “I wish she'd rung me,” he says sadly.

If Vincent's lonely and unheeded death represents how you wouldn't want to die, is it possible to die well? When the question was put to theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, he said a good death was one where, “I can be happily remembered by those who have made my life possible.”

This is at least partly true for Vincent, whose friends thrill at hearing her playful introduction to herself preserved in a sound recording of her voice. And it's certainly the case for Sunada, who spends his last moments surrounded by his loved ones.

But even the best death leaves a gaping hole, a huge tear in the fabric of family and friendship, because we simply don't know what happens to the dead. In Death of a Japanese Salesman, Sunada's young granddaughter asks: “Is it fun where you're going?” He says he can't say.

At the end of the film, Mami asks her father: “So, where are you now?” Her own voice replies for Sunada, repeating his previous words: “That, I can't tell you.”

And yet we can't help hoping for something better after death. This is given voice as Sunada's family gathers around his weakening body, still able to smile in the midst of sadness: “Being here together, laughing, it feels like this must be heaven.” Maybe many of us have felt a similar way at times.

But for others, the promise of a heaven that offers peace and reunion with lost loved ones is just too good to be true. Physicist Stephen Hawking, for one, dismissed heaven as a fairy story for those afraid of the dark. Presumably he would similarly reject the heaven of Christianity that not only promises the final undoing of death but the tender image of God wiping away everyone's tears.

Maybe Hawking is right, and belief in heaven simply soothes our fears before the long dark descends. And yet, the last shot of Dreams of a Life points to the potential of such a vision.

Morley discovered some rare footage of Vincent at a 1990 tribute concert held for Nelson Mandela. Tucked away in the corner of the frame, Vincent turns to someone behind her and smiles, her earrings gleaming as they catch the light. Reflecting on finding this brief glimpse of Vincent, Morley writes in The Guardian: “It was Joyce – moving and alive. I had found her. The power of the moving image hit me, the power to resurrect.”

It's a poignant moment where we see the bright and happy Vincent as she lived rather than as she died. But it falls short: she can no more be resurrected than Sunada brought back to life at every screening of Death of a Japanese Salesman. The moving image lacks that potency.

These films movingly tell stories of death without the trappings of religion, and yet it must be remembered that there are still some who dare to hope in One who holds the “power to resurrect”.

Dr Justine Toh is the Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and an Honorary Associate of the Department of Media, Music, and Cultural Studies at Macquarie University.