An awkward time
Cellist Daigo Kobayashi (played by Masahiro Motoki), after practicing for years has finally achieved his dream of playing in an orchestra in Tokyo. He loves his cello, but has not told his wife, Mika (played by Ryôko Hirosue), how much it cost—too much for their meager income. Then, early in the film Daigo’s dream is shattered and his secret is revealed. After a performance the orchestra owner comes backstage where the musicians are preparing to go home. He bows stiffly, says, “The orchestra is dissolved,” turns and walks away.
Orchestra gigs are rare, so Daigo decides to return to the home left to him in the north of Japan when his mother died. His father abandoned the family when Daigo was a boy, and the betrayal weighs heavy on Daigo’s soul. He looks for work and finally decides to interview at a company that advertises itself as “Departures,” thinking it must be a travel service. It turns out to be a misprint for “Departed”—this company, in a tender, elaborate, respectful ceremony prepare dead bodies for their coffins. At first Daigo is repulsed by the very idea of the work, but the manager of the company assumes the role of mentor so quietly and effectively you almost miss the superb way Daigo comes to see the importance and dignity of the work.
Departures won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for 2009, and richly deserved it. The acting, though at times a bit overly dramatic to American eyes is purely Japanese, and the soundtrack is beautifully effective. The subplots, essential to the main story and well developed, help characters develop so that we care about these ordinary people trying to make sense of life in the face of abandonment, disappointment, and finally death. The characters are from another country than I am, speak another language, do things I have never witnessed, and hold cultural values foreign to what I am used to. Yet the issues explored are so profoundly human and the stories told are so wonderfully real that I identified with them. Though it is about death and preparing the body after death, never is Departures morbid or grotesque. We see people grieve and then watch Daigo learn to bring a ceremony of beauty and simple care into their mourning that helps them move towards resolution. This ceremony of “encoffinment,” where the body is prepared for cremation is like a ballet of gentle care and delicate modesty performed before the grieving family. Never have I seen dead bodies treated with such deep respect. Never have I seen such a physical act help grieving people mourn their loss.
“The enterprise of undertaking is deadly serious,” Roger Ebert says in his review of Departures, “but has always inspired a certain humor, perhaps to mask our fears. The film is sometimes humorous, but not in a way to break the mood. The plot involves some developments we can see coming, but they seem natural, inevitable. The music is lush and sentimental in a subdued way, the cinematography is perfectly framed and evocative, and the movie is uncommonly absorbing. There is a scene of discovery toward the end with tremendous emotional impact. You can’t say it wasn’t prepared for, but it comes as a devastating surprise, a poetic resolution.”
It took me a few minutes to get used to the distinctively Japanese aspects of Departures, and as always, reading subtitles changes the experience of watching a film. Still I found this film touching, deeply human, and without being preachy able to cause its viewers to think about one of the biggest questions human being must face. Death, mourning, and the societal customs surrounding them are reflections of convictions and values, and sometimes, as in America, powerful economic forces at work in the marketplace. Especially since none of this is usually something we wish to reflect much on, it is easy to allow the status quo to remain, for blessing or for curse. We can be thankful for artists like Departures director Yôjirô Takita who give us reason to think about it all before we are plunged into grief ourselves.