There seems to be a special place in Japanese cinema for death. Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story come to mind as some of Japan’s most famous renditions about the taboo subject; these are movies about death, but they focus on the living. It’s often said funerals are for the living, and not so much for the dead. Yorjio Takita’s Departures rings a similar tone —its attention is on the survivors and the meaning of the life that has just passed. There is mourning, but no hopeless grief. It’s channeled through delicate ritual that inextricably renders a fantastic sense of tranquility that permeates throughout Takita’s masterpiece.
Our young hero Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) is a cellist who falls victim to a dying orchestra. Daigo and his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), due to financial pressures, sell the cello and move back to Daigo’s childhood hometown in rural Yamagata prefecture. One morning while eating breakfast, Daigo sees an advertisement for a company called “NK Agent” — which he presumes to be a travel agency. He travels to the small office managed by an assistant (Yo Kimiko) and the owner Mr. Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki). The interview is one question long, and he gets the job and cash in advance. It’s a travel agency all right , to the afterlife: this is an “encoffinment” or “undertaking” business.
Before Daigo has time to digest his new role, Mr. Sasaki asks him to give it a chance, and observe the process of encoffinment for himself. It’s a hypnotically graceful ordeal, reminiscent of the precision and elegance found in a Japanese tea ceremony. Daigo himself says, “it was calm and precise, and more than anything, it was filled with affection.” Carefully arranged sheets preserve the body’s privacy as Mr. Sasaki washes and dresses up the body. The body’s face is then made up with exquisite detail. There are outbursts of emotion — the deceased’s family is immensely thankful, and mentions that this is the most beautiful she’s ever looked. Our young Daigo starts to understand how important he and Sasaki are to the mourning process.
Even as Daigo understands the important role he plays for the family’s mourning in an ever elderly Japanese countryside, his wife is understandably upset, and threatens to leave if he doesn’t change jobs. There is an inherent fear of death in Japanese culture, and all those associated with it as well. The undertaking business is an important business, but not very respectable from what I gather.
The casting in Departures is generally high quality. Masahiro Motoki does a splendid job of convincing us of his inner turmoil as he adapts to the emotional stresses of his new career. Ryoko Hirosue is less consistent, and occasionally indulges in the head-bobbing, giggly, saccharine girlishness that is epitomized in your typical Japanese TV Drama actress. The true star, is however, Tsutomu Yamazaki. His role as Sasaki is ever reflective of a man who’s seen enough corpses for multiple lifetimes — but has the heart to crack a joke about it. His character is never demonstrative or assertive, but supremely understated. He never makes speeches about the greatness or necessity of his work, but everything is implied through his subtle expressions.
Joe Hisaishi once again blesses us with a luscious orchestral score that allows Daigo and his cello to take center stage. It’s calm, pensive, but ultimately hopeful, much like the film itself — a confluence of grace and sorrow. The cinematography is distinctly Japanese — polite and generally employing still shots for a theatrical effect, though Takita doesn’t forgo the opportunity to show us fantastical, sweeping shots of Yamagata’s pristine countryside , with its towering mountains and breathtaking rivers.
Like Ikiru and Tokyo Story before it, Takita’s Departures is another superb film in the rich vein of Japanese cinema exploring the rituals of death. Departures is a story of how these rituals comfort us, enchant us, and see us through to a place where our grief is replaced by respectful acceptance. It’s a mesmerizing, absorbing tale full of tears and joy. It celebrates the intricate details of the Japanese rites of passage while laying bare their universal function — to help those who live reconnect with their beloved. This is yet again another beautiful contribution from Japan, and certainly worthy of the Oscar it obtained.
Departures (Japanese: おくりびと)—Japan. Directed by Yojiro Takita. First released September 2008. Running time 2hrs 10min. Starring Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, and Tsutomu Yamazaki.