Departures considers the inescapable in a starkly honest portrayal of the ceremony of death, and its reaction among the living.
If the only two certainties in life are death and taxes, then Yojiro Takita’s Oscar-winning Departures approaches our pivotal certainty with a macabre humour. As Takita’s native Japan is one of the world’s most heavily taxed nations, with the highest life expectancy, the subject of death is fitting in its inevitability and in the extent to which we ignore this given in life.
Departures is quiet, subdued and painstakingly choreographed. It presents a refreshing take on the country where international cinematic outputs have concentrated so firmly on the two-dimensional in recent years, because there are numerous levels to this film. On the one hand, it’s an incredibly personal account of one man’s poignant journey, of learning to love a career that he encountered by the very definition of fluke. On the other, it’s a portrait, very Japanese in its nature focusing on the unspoken in all societies. Clichés aside, Takita’s subject matter could not be more universal. Furthermore, the film takes on a wry humour, highlighting the myriad of uncertainties that we must cross, before the inevitable “departure”, as the protagonist invests millions of Yen in a cello, for his orchestra to be dissolved, or answers an advert from “Departures”, expecting a travel agency and stumbling across a funeral home.
The plot follows budding cellist, Daigo to witness the termination of his long-coveted job in a Tokyo orchestra and his subsequent return to his sleepy hometown. In search of work, Daigo answers a job advertisement for the mis-printed “Departures” (intended as The Departed), an encoffinment agency run by a regal “Boss” and a runaway teenage mother. Attracted by a large salary, Daigo is initially horrified at the reality of his work with The Departed, but the intriguing figure of the Boss, and the elation on the faces of family members at the restorative nature of his work, combine to a heartfelt appreciation for his role as an indispensible craft. Daigo’s encounters with many different mourners resonate with the sensitive protagonist, as he witnesses emotions and idiosyncrasies at their rawest, and approaches each family with an unerring respect for the task in hand, even when the respect is not reciprocated to these “people who earn a living off the dead.” In turn, Daigo’s wife is humiliated by his role, and the degree to which Daigo allows his new career to impose on the marital bond is shocking, indicating the true extent to which he becomes absorbed in the ceremonies of death. Encoffinment provides Daigo’s redemption, concluding a lifelong battle with his absent father in the manner in which the professional in Daigo is obliged to show more respect to the corpse than to the living man.
Takita was approached by Masahiro Motoki (in the role of Daigo) and was intrigued at the challenge of invigorating the viewer’s approach to death, “finding the interest and charm in themes that other people do not want to touch.” Loosely inspired by Shinmon Aoki’s Coffinman: A Journal of the Buddhist Mortician, Motoki approached his role with an enthusiasm that led him to six months practicing the process of encoffinment. Takita says: “I felt the content was very familiar, and though the film will be dealing with death, I felt that it would talk more of life, it’s surprisingly uplifting.” The encoffinment processes in the film are moving in their delicacy, and in the intent concentration applied to the body by the nokanshi (encoffiner) as well as by the on-looking mourners. And the most heart-warming moments occur not in Daigo’s personal relationships with his wife, friends, or even in his belated reunion with his father, but in the grateful praise of relatives of the deceased, at his ceremonies. Witnessing encoffinment Takita realised “the wonder and beauty of sending someone off with respect, of a person sending off another and conducting the act with grace and blessings,” and recognised the appeal of the surprising subject matter.
Although Takita is keen to draw the audience’s focus onto life, the issue of death is naturally central to the plot, but it is viewed outside the eyes of society, which shuns and despises it until an inevitable confrontation. Daigo is ostracised by his wife and his oldest friends, they react to his unusual vocation with shame and embarrassment and an attitude typical of a society which places huge importance on career, etiquette and to a certain extent, superstition. “In some way in the Japanese mind, we feel death as something untouchable and frightening, filled with awe. This results in people backing away from the entire process of death and anyone who handles this,” Daigo’s wife screams, “you are unclean” and (temporarily at least) leaves him in disgust. Here the extent to which Daigo has been overwhelmed by the paraphernalia of death becomes clear, to the audience if not to the protagonist. He continues his work, and his wife’s plight is senselessly overlooked in the extent to which Daigo remains faithful to his role over his marriage. Moments like this, rather than in the faces of mourners, make the film a sinister viewing, and the emphasis placed on beauty highlights the Japanese role of keeping up appearances. Departures highlights the grace and dignity of the dead, but that this is enacted through a veneer of cosmetics indicates superficiality to the process. Takita “felt that one’s way of life may show in how one dies and is sent off to the world” but in choosing an unorthodox focus on death, the living relationships become unfortunately secondary in keeping the film’s mainstay clear.
Universal to all societies and cultures, death becomes the unifying bond of Departures, as the array of mourners transports us to considering the unthinkable. Departures forces us to witness a montage of grief and consider our own place within that variety, but the important emphasis is that all encounters are treated with dignity. Takita explains: “Through this film, many people recognise that death must be faced in one way or another, and this may be the way they would face it.” Daigo’s own father’s death reconciles a tumultuous relationship, as his rough treatment at the hands of undertakers alerts Daigo to how he has allowed a dignity to strangers that he denied his father. This redemption in death, and the consideration and acknowledgement of its existence, epitomises the film’s universality, even in terms of its poignant humour – “I did not intentionally create the film to please the worldwide audience, but when I went to Korea I was both surprised and happy to see that the Korean audience had enjoyed and laughed at the same parts as the Japanese audience.”
Departures’ international recognition has led to significant acclaim on native soil, with the film remaining on Japanese screens for over a year, something that appeals to Takita after a 13-month struggle for release: “It was difficult to attract interest in a film so concerned with death, and it’s a good question as to why Japanese films have to be recognised abroad before people pay attention at home.” But Departures is far from action-packed, and it’s understandable that its appeal avoids instant recognition. Despite a laboured focus on unimaginative symbolism however, a novel plot, and inherent joyfulness come to the fore, and subtlety is its key component. Takita urges us to sit back and consider our one commonality, and its effects on its prelude. It may seem macabre to look at life through death, but with even the mourners expressing moments of humour, and quietly beautiful cinematography, Departures is a slow burner to thought-provoking issues.
Departures was showing at cinemas across the UK from 4 December 2009. www.departures-themovie.com.