Director: Yôjirô Takita
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Many of the films many of us see are filled with death. War movies, detective and serial killer movies, fantasy and action films—and above all, horror movies—entertain us in one way or another by strewing the screen with corpses. It is the rare film, however, that actually deals with death as a rite of passage that all human beings will face. It’s easier to watch troops get mowed down somehow than it is to consider our own extinction. It’s a shame, really, that people rarely turn to the movies for instruction on how to die, because there are some great features and documentaries out there that could help us learn about our own mortality and create a fairly comfortable space for it in our thoughts and lives.
Departures, the 2009 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner, is one such film. A gentle, often humorous look at death that explores not only grief and reconciliation, but also the commonplace needs of the dead and their families, Departures focuses on one man’s passage from one way of life to another—one in which he ritually prepares bodies for burial.
Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a cellist for a Tokyo orchestra. We watch as the musicians perform the rousing finale to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and then learn after the performance that the bankrupt orchestra is being dissolved. Daigo breaks the news to his sweet wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), and they decide to move to his hometown, where he has a paid-for home his deceased mother left him in her will. Daigo sells his expensive cello, which he cannot afford to pay off, with a sigh of relief, feeling he was never a good enough cellist for the instrument. It’s time for a new kind of life.
Daigo sees a help-wanted ad in the local paper for someone to handle departures for a firm called NK Agency. The ad promises great pay and short hours. Thinking it must be a travel agency, Daigo arranges an interview with the owner, Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki). He enters the establishment, and meets Yuriko (Kimiko Yo), the office manager, who tells him to have a seat. Directly in his line of sight are three wooden coffins. When Mr. Sasaki arrives, Daigo hands him his resume. Sasaki shoves it aside, looks at him closely, and asks him if he will work hard. When Daigo says “yes,” Sasaki hires him at a very handsome salary. When Daigo asks what the job entails, Sasaki merely says, “You’ll be my assistant.”
It isn’t until the next day, when Daigo is told to meet Sasaki at a theatre, that he learns what he is to do. Sasaki uses him as a demonstration model for an instructional video on encoffinment, showing how to pack the cavities of the body for burial, how to shave and handle necrotic skin, and how to dress and apply make-up to corpses. NK, it turns out, stands for “nokan” (encoffinment), and the ad should have said “the departed” rather than “departures.” When the next job involves handling a body that has been decomposing for two weeks, Daigo loses his cookies and very nearly quits, that is, until he goes with Sasaki to a proper funeral and watches the careful attention his boss pays to the corpse and the relief and gratitude the grieving family experience. He takes pride in the comfort he can bring to people and the reverence he can show for the deceased—but he keeps the nature of his work a secret from Mika, fearing she will be repulsed. When she does finally find out, she basically says, “your job or me.” When Daigo chooses his job, Mika leaves him.
Departures zeroes in on the passages of Daigo’s life in a way that universalizes the progression of life from birth to death. Daigo, in the middle of his life, has written off in bitterness the father who left him and his mother when Daigo was 6, and he failed to attend his mother’s funeral. Finding in Sasaki a surrogate father in whose shoes he can follow, he regresses somewhat and lets go of his adult life with Mika. Invited by Sasaki to share dinner with him after Mika’s departure, Daigo observes Sasaki’s lingering sadness over his wife’s death nine years before. He starts learning lessons his own father never had time to teach him and relearning some he did, such as returning to the cello he learned on when he was a child. Eventually, Daigo becomes reconciled to his past and ready to move forward as an adult.
The film mixes a bit of pathos with comedy, such as Daigo’s bewilderment at his role in the training video; Daigo’s first corpse preparation, when he learns the young woman he is washing is actually a man; and a full-scale fight among members of a family that blame each other for the death they are grieving. Although the story is somewhat predictable and broadly sketched, the fine performances of Motoki and especially Yamazaki as Daigo and Sasaki ground this film and keep it from flying away with the first strong gust of wind.
Director Takita provides some gorgeous “pillow shots” that show the beauty of nature, making death seem a natural part of life and encouraging audiences not to turn away from it. In the Q&A Takita mentioned a happenstance by which he first learned of the encoffinment profession and his own advancing age as spurs to his desire to make this film. I’ve seen better films on death and dying than Departures, but perhaps none as sweet and accessible. l
Q&A with Yôjirô Takita