Originally titled Okuribito (‘sending off people’), Departures won the 2009 best foreign film Oscar even before it received a theatrical release in the US.
Departures tells the story of cellist Daigo Kobayashi who suddenly finds himself out of work when his Tokyo orchestra goes bankrupt. He decides to take himself and his wife back to the house left to him by his mother in Yamagata, north of Tokyo. But the house, like all houses, harbours memories he thought were long forgotten.
Early in the film, the theme of ‘disgust with dead things’ is illustrated by the octopus, given as a supper gift from a friendly neighbour. The redundancy of the now-dead octopus bobbing up and down in the waves sets the silk-stropping tone for the proceeding narrative.
Daigo spots an ad in the newspaper, phones up about the job, and arrives at NK Agents for an interview. It turns out that his chosen employer isn’t a travel agent, as the owner points out by correcting the ad Daigo’s brought with him; it’s not about the ‘departures’ and arrivals of modern travel, it’s about ‘the recently departed’, i.e. casketing dead people for cremation. It’s a dirty job, but it pays really well.
Here’s how death works in Japan. The client… The undertaker… The crematorium… Except that’s not exactly how it works. There’s an intermediate stage that’s rarely discussed, and their role is not a respectable one to have, it’s certainly not what affluent Japanese parents send their kids to re-mortgaging cram school to revise for as a career.
‘Nakonshi’ or ‘corpse cleaners’ sit between the client and the undertaker, and it is their job to turn a corpse into a presentable ‘doll’ for pre-cremation display. They do this while the family watches, and you’d imagine the processing of a corpse would turn into a disturbingly voyeuristic ritual. Tension grows between Daigo and his wife, and he has to make the decision to stay in his new job or keep his wife; he can’t have both.
Losing the corporate job is such a total nightmare in Japan as company housing is often associated with such and losing one means losing the other. This film shares a lot of themes with another recent job-loss film, Tokyo Sonata; family, shame, and music. The use of voiceover, scenery and music alludes to another of my favourite Japanese films of recent years, Tony Takitani. “The living eat the dead,” that’s what Daigo’s boss tells him. And it’s this basic ‘fact of life’ that permeates this, at times uncomfortable, developing-character study.
I had a slight problem with the film in that, every time I saw Daigo playing his cello in the wilderness atop the dykes of Yamagata, I kept thinking of Bruce Springsteen cockerling Born In The USA to an audience of 48,000 adoring fans. Maybe it was something about how Daigo was dressed. Maybe it was something about the way the scene was filmed with a slowly panning concert camera. It actually threatened to break the delicate silk ribbon of empathy that had grown between the viewer and the full cast of wonderful characters up to that point.
Fortunately, all that chocolate-box ‘grandstanding’ was forgotten, or forgiven, when Daigo started to shine in his role as the apprentice Nakonshi. The excellence of his performance, the care for his clients, the crisp snap of silk during the sombre ceremony all go to illustrate just what an accomplished, necessary and appreciated role the Nakonshi really is.
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Funniest moment, and there are several in the film if you are able to appreciate its rather gawking definition of humour, relates to a nappy scene – I’ll not give too much away but you’ll know it when you see it. Remember, nappy scene. Most poignant narrative device – “letter stones”…
DVD special features: a making-of documentary (33 minutes), Encoffinment featurette (13 minutes), theatrical trailer, and a photo gallery.