Departures is the story of a man forced by financial hard times to become a noukanshi, a person whose job it is to prepare the body of the deceased, in the presence of the deceased’s family, for placement in a coffin before cremation.
The film is a total immersion experience in Japanese sensibility, a crash course in the whole range of culture, from the sublime to the ridiculous. To most Westerners (and possibly most other Easterners as well) Japan is a place of unexpected juxtapositions, and what director Takita Yojiro, writer Koyama Kundo, producer and lead actor Motoki Masahiro and others have come up with is consistent with that image. It is the rankest sentimentality up next to the wisdom of the ages, snowflakes and wild geese flying across the sky and Ave Maria on the cello up against exaggerated facial expressions and slapstick humor and one of the most profound life-affirming messages ever portrayed. A comedy about death. More specifically, a comedy about the dignity of death.
It doesn’t matter that most Japanese today are unfamiliar with the practice. Japanese and others familiar with Japan will recognize in the tradition a distinctly Japanese way of channeling pain and grief into dignity. The Japanese skill at turning a mundane object into an art object through wrapping (even books are wrapped in their own paper cover) is merely extended to the human body.
How many people other than the makers of Departures could take on not only death as a theme directly, but the taboo of the dead body? One false move, and this could have been a disaster. But there isn’t one false move. What in less capable hands would be maudlin, even grotesque, becomes a work of art. Westerners are left to wonder why their dead are either turned over to strangers to be manipulated like silly putty, or whisked away and forgotten, while there are people on the planet who seem to be able to transform their loved ones like ikebana flowers into objects of unexpected beauty. How often does one come away from a peek into alien cultural practices with the conviction that they do it better?
The film works because the tone is exquisite, the eccentricities of the characters come across as universals, and the predictability of the story line is compensated for by the power of the emotions so brilliantly portrayed. A five-star movie.
released September 2008 in Japan
original title Okuribito (the “Send Off Person”)
starring: Motoki Masahiro as Kobayashi Daigo, Yamazaki Tsutomu as Sasaki Ikuei, Hirosue Ryoko as Kobayashi Mika, Yo Kimiko as Kamimura Yuriko, Yoshiyuki Kazuko as Yamashita Tsuyako, and Sasano Takashi as Hirata Shokichi.