Let’s face it: death in all its myriad and repulsive forms is an inseparable part of life. It’s the yin to the yang, the other side of the coin. Nere the twain shall meet, yet one cannot exist without the other. But the problem is that death is liable to be treated in popular media in a way that might skew its place in people’s lives. Sure, there are plenty of ways in comics, movies, television, books and games that treat death with the respect and gravity it deserves, but there are just as many who treat death as an almost-trivial means of advancing the story. In this post, I’ll be looking at how a death can advance a story in movies.
Oh, and since we’re delving into character deaths, I’ll say this for the sake of formality. MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD, READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.
Movies have a distinct disadvantage against books; they have time limits, and are based on visual elements more than description. Live-action movies also have the issue of the basic restrictions of reality on their characters. This means that many deaths in movies can come off as fairly pedestrian. Sometimes this pedestrian quality can itself be dramatic. An example is the final sequence of events of the gangster movie The Departed, a Westernised remake of the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs. The final scene is a stark contrast to the hectic massacre that precedes it. Main protagonist Colin Sullivan has been responsible for killing his former handler Costello, undercover cop Costigan, and another mole in his department. He is hailed, but he is also miserable; he has destroyed both his own life and the lives of many others. Returning to his apartment, he is faced by ex-cop Sean Digman. Without music or fanfare, preceded by only a single hollow expletive, Sullivan is shot through the head and left on the floor. This hollow ending for the movie’s main protagonist is sudden and flat, but that actually makes sense within the story’s context. Considering all he has been through and all he has done, such a weak ending is perfectly suited to his character.
From protagonists to antagonists, we turn to the despicable personage of Hori, who is arguably the main antagonist of The Hidden Blade. A theme throughout the movie is how the honour and traditions of the samurai are beginning to come under threat during the 1860s, the last years of the Edo period. Main protagonist Munezo Katagiri is forced to watch the life of his friend Yaichiro Hazama twisted and ruined by the corrupt Edo elite, represented by Hori. Hori is shown to be truly repulsive, showing no respect to Katagiri and trying to force him to compromise the samurai code. He then arranges Hazama’s dishonourable death, lies to Hazama’s wife to receive sexual favours for the promise of Hazama’s survival, then all but laughs even after her suicide. Katagiri is the man who whose unbending fealty to his clan meant the killing of his fallen friend, but when faced with Hori’s horrific actions, he acts as Hazama’s avenging angel. Using a secret style, Katagiri punctures Hori’s heart, fatally wounding him. This is a richly-deserved death; for Westerners we seen a plain old horrible man, for Japanese viewers this is a man who soils treasured samurai traditions. His death is also quite apt; destroyed by the very man he forced to influence, with a technique he could never hope to understand, on behalf of the memories of those he condemned to death.
Death is not just a singular event, but can be the thematic foundation of a story. An example of this can be found within Star Trek Generations. Death, the end of things and the meaning of one’s life form a recurring theme in the movie. Main villain Soren’s obsession with reaching the blissful extra-dimensional Nexus partially stems from the death of his family at the Borg’s hands; Picard’s brother and nephew are reported dead, leaving Picard as the last of the line; and the movie itself opens with original protagonist James Kirk apparently dying saving the Enterprise-B from the Nexus ribbon. The movie ends with Picard and Kirk ironically using the Nexus itself to foil Soren’s plans, but this results in Kirk’s true death. Kirk’s death alone would be shocking enough to long-term fans of the series, but the movie’s real strength is that it uses death and endings as a recurring theme, even if many of the deaths seen during the story are reversed. This lends the movie a far greater weight than if it had been just one death.
In books, words are used to describe nearly everything, even when illustrations help. This can result in death scenes becoming clunky if handled wrong. In the visual arts, particularly in movies, a death can be illustrated in a fraction of the time it might take a book. It can also leave a more vivid impression, as the scene is exactly that; visual. As humans, we respond better to visual inputs, we see and we assimilate through seeing. Seeing death makes it that much more real; thus seeing death in movies, in all its subtle and gory forms, makes it more real to us.
Next week, we dive into the realm of television. While sharing many similarities to the workings of movies and more frequently bound by the rules of the real world, they also have the ability to tell longer stories and a greater freedom of expression.