First time I saw this movie ‘Departures’ was when I visited a friend two years ago. I was amazed with this movie and its conception of practices where dead are given such a wonderful farewell ……True to its tradition, it’s a once in a life time experience and honestly a modern day classic.
‘Departures’ made in 2008, directed by Yojiro Takita. This Takita’s thematically daring cinema, with stiff competition in the best foreign language film to the likes of ‘The Class’ and ‘Waltz with Bashir’ won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 81st Oscars in 2009 and the Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year at the 32nd Japan Academy Prize.
This film portrays the Japanese ‘encoffinment’ ceremony (called as ‘nokan’locally), here the professional morticians ritually dress and prepare bodies before they are placed in coffins. Although the film follows contemporary themes, the practice is now rarely performed; limited mainly to rural areas where older traditions are maintained.
This subject is a cinematic expression of religious metaphors. The Shinto view of death and Buddhists practices associated with the metaphor of the journey to the afterlife. Sounds very unique to the global audience and many of you would dazed, seen this film and the ingenuity of the filmmakers to pick up a subject such as ‘encoffinment’. I am sure this is astounding and would be equally enthralled by the Buddhists practices (Shintoism, and this is also an ancient practices from the Hindu ritual) as a subject for a feature film and many others would be equally intrigued by the Asian traditions that consider associating any profession relating to the dead. This touching tale is about an aspiring cellist, who accidentally becomes a mortician (an undertaker or a funeral director, to some) when he loses his dream job with a symphony orchestra.
The film opens with the scene of the car driving through blinding blizzard with snow and heavy winter characterizes the town of Sakata in Yamagata. The pure white snow falling from the grey sky prepares viewers for the somber atmosphere of death and mourning foreshadowing upcoming sequence of funeral….. The very insight is melancholic and we have Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), the smooth-faced protagonist, is a professional cellist in Tokyo, after losing his job decides to move back to his childhood hometown in Sakata, Yamagata with his spirited wife Mika. Daigo’s family runs a small coffee shop. Just as a background, Daigo’s father would have run away with the waitress years ago. Daigo’s mother raises him from his young age. And its two years since she would have died and Daigo feels guilty about not having taken better care of his mother.
Back home, an ad for a job on the newspapers for ‘assisting departures’ attracts Daigo’s attention. . Daigo goes to the interview, wins the job in seconds, gets and advance cash payment in the middle of his shock by the nature of the job. When he goes back home he tells his wife he would be ‘doing ceremonies’. On his first day, he is made to act as a corpse in a DVD explaining the procedure. His first assignment is to clean, dress and apply cosmetics to the body of an aged woman who has died alone at home, remaining undiscovered for two weeks. He is tormented with nausea, and disgraced when strangers on the bus detect an unsavory scent. He goes to an old public bath that he often went to during his childhood to wash off. The bath is run by Tsuyako Yamashita, whose son was an old classmate of Daigo.
Daigo completes a number of assignments and experiences the gratitude of those left behind, gaining a sense of fulfillment, however he keeps his job secret with his wife Mika. But Mika finds the DVD and begs him to give up the disgusting profession. Daigo refuses to quit, so she leaves. Even Yamashita, his old classmate, tells him to fetch him a better job
After some months, Mika returns, announcing that she is pregnant. She seems to assume that he will get a different job. While Daigo and Mika try to work things out, the telephone rings with the news that Tsuyako, Yamashita’s mother, has died. In front of Yamashita, his family and Mika, Daigo prepares her body. The ritual earns the respect of all present. During cremation, Tsuyako’s friend appears as the cremator. He thinks that death is not the “end” but the gate to a next stage.
Subsequently, Daigo goes to the river and finds a small stone to give to Mika. He recalls a story once his father would have shared him, and seeing Mika, he tells her about “stone-letters”, a story told to him by his father – “Long ago, before words were invented, people would give each other stones to express how they were feeling at that point. A smooth stone might mean that you are happy, while a rough one might mean you are worried about them.” Many years ago, Daigo had stood on these same riverbanks with his father and exchanged stone-letters. Daigo’s father had promised to send him one every year, though he never did.
Close to the final scene, he is informed about his father’s death. Daigo refuses to see him, but his villagers and friends convince him to go, and with his change of heart- Daigo and Mika go to see the body of his father, but Daigo finds that he cannot recognize him. As the funeral workers carelessly handle the body, he angrily stops them followed by Daigo’s preparation for his father’s funeral, close to take over the dressing of his father’s body, a ‘stone-letter’ falls from his father’s hand. A small and smooth ‘stone-letter’ which means his father is sort of satisfied with him. Daigo who is so overwhelmed by getting to see his father after years presses the ‘stone letter’ on his pregnant wife’s belly as if conveying that meaning to their unborn child……
All this is conveyed in a good script and amazing cinematography. The acting is outstanding, and the most memorable feature in ‘Departures’ is the music score composed by Joe Hisaishi reminiscent of Beethoven’s ninth Symphony and also Bach’s Ave Maria and other classic Western music. Hisaishi adds a lot of value to the black-comedy that later turns to strong drama.
The film is overtly an essay on the art about rituals, the farewell of the dead under the gaze of family members and friends, and also the last respects shown so intensely. A sub-text of the film deals with reverse urban migration, of going back to the villages as urban employment becomes unpredictable and unstable under recession. Much later in the film there is mention of salmon returning upstream from the oceans to die. The metaphor becomes one of the many Shintoist references where life s patterns can be understood by studying nature. Here is a movie that attempts to improve life and marital compatibility by having a closer look, not at death, but at the dead. The great effort from the director Takita
This movie is loosely based on Aoki Shinmon’s autobiographical book ‘Coffinman-The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician’ and took ten years in the making. Motoki studied the art of ‘encoffinment’ at first hand from a mortician, and how to play a cello for the earlier parts of the film. The director attended funeral ceremonies in order to understand the feelings of bereaved families. While death is the subject of great ceremony, as portrayed in the film, it is also a strongly taboo subject in Japan, so the director was worried about the film’s reception and did not anticipate commercial success
The charm of this movie is in its innocence. There are so many touching moments, and each scene depicts a newer dimension of life, it’s purely visual and is beautifully photographed with emphasis on bursts of life such as birds, suddenly, taking off and other spectacular signs of life in the environment. There are strong scenes in which the passion for life, for food and for love stands in the face of the overwhelming death that has these people engaged in living by the rituals of preparing them to the newer magnitudes…..I recommend that this is a wonderful movie and a very moving experience with warmth and tenderness strewn with the sprint of humor- Thoroughly enchanting
Special mention if you are watching this movie, especially movie enthusiasts should look at these in niceties as shared
- The first scenes in which the vehicle gets pass the white snow and looming cover of dark cloud in grey
- Tokyo symphony orchestra performing Beethoven’s Ninth symphony
- Miko’s cheerfulness and her innocence as she greets her husband
- The bowing to greet people and the deep bows at the end of the ceremonies
- The beautiful gentility to detail and respect for the deceased demonstrated by Sasaki
- The attitude of a frequent visitor Shokichi Hirata, in the bathhouse, toward his work at the crematorium
- The harmonious and flowing cello played by Daigo
- Sasaki’s enthusiasm for a good meal
- The moving expressions on Yamashita’s face as he watches the casketing of his mother
- The sight in which Daigo glares at the salmon swimming upstream to lay their eggs as a dead salmon drifts downstream
- Miko’s growing understanding of and pride in what her husband does
- Daigo’s keen awareness of just what is needed to help someone, including himself grieve.
- Directed by Yōjirō Takita
- Produced by Yasuhiro Mase
- Written by Kundô Koyama
- Starring Masahiro Motoki, Ryôko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki
- Music by Joe Hisaishi
- Cinematography by Takeshi Hamada
- Editing by Akimasa Kawashima
- Distributed by Shochiku
- Release dates: 13 September 2008
- Run time of 130 minutes
- Country: Japan
- Language: Japanese