Departures

Directed by Yojiro Takita
Starring Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kimiko Yo, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Takashi Sasano

Death has never been more beautiful than in Japanese director Yojiro Takita’s recent film, Departures. Unfortunately, although it won the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and 10 Japan Academy Awards, it sank at the box office outside Japan. This is unfortunate, as it is a wonderful film about how we should react to our own mortality.

Even though it deals with a potentially macabre subject — the preparation of the dead for cremation or burial – Takita’s treatment is not simply tasteful but life-afirming. This is a bit curious, as the Japanese are said to treat death as a taboo topic. Yet it is they who made Departures, not Hollywood. In the West, preparing bodies for cremation or burial could only be a subject for black comedy.

Departures is not a religious film but it stresses the dignity of human beings in death and in life. We may have occupied different stations in life, but at the end, we are corpses, from which, depending on your beliefs, our souls or spirits have moved on or departed. And these earthly remains deserve the utmost respect; they are the temples of our souls.

This is a perspective on death that could help materialistic Western audiences to focus on the things that are really important in life. Departures is about love, family, loyalty, respect, responsibility, and even the place of humans in the natural world. But its central theme is reconciliation.

Masahiro Motoki, who featured in the original Japanese version of Shall We Dance?, is superb as Daigo Kobayashi, a young cellist in a Tokyo orchestra that is disbanded by its owner. He and his wife Mika, played by the excellent Ryoko Hirosue, return to his hometown of Hirano, in the northeast prefecture of Yamagata. They live in Daigo’s deceased mother’s house, which used to be a cafe run by his father, who left them when Daigo was very young.

Daigo looks for work and answers an advertisement for “assisting departures”. He thinks that this must be a travel agency. To his horror, it is a company that prepares the dead for cremation. The company sub-contracts for undertakers.

Sisaki, the owner of the company, is played understatedly but splendidly by Tsutomu Yamazaki. He proves an able and empathetic teacher. He seems almost priestly when he prepares the garments in which the dead are to be clad. Daigo learns that he entered the business when he prepared the remains of his own wife for cremation.

There is humour in the midst of these sombre serious scenes, too. Daigo’s first assignment is to act as a corpse in a DVD explaining the procedure of encoffinment. Schoolgirls giggle and pass their knee-length socks to Daigo to put them on their dead grandmother because she used to love to wear them in life.

Daigo is also encouraged to pursue his new profession by the company’s “Girl Friday” (Kimiko Yo), who manages to add an earthy but sensitive touch of humour to the business of the firm, and he soon warms to the work.

But Daigo hides his duties from his wife, who thinks he works for a company that organises ceremonies, such as weddings. When she finds out the truth, she is horrified. She begs him to quit and, when he refuses, she leaves him. Others in the community soon find out what he does for a living and even his closest friend shuns him.

Daigo’s reconciliation with his pregnant wife and his interactions with the local owner of the sento, or bath house, and its clientele, encompass a wide range of human emotions, including basic human prejudices. But his new-found profession turns out to be a unifying and positive factor in his own life and in the lives of bereaved families within the community.

Daigo earns respect, and bickering families are reconciled through his ministrations over the body of their relative. The climax comes in a moving scene when Daigo has to prepare the body of his own long-estranged father. Reconciliation is at the heart of Departures.

This film is enhanced by the music of Joe Hisaishi, who also worked for that iconic Japanese director “Beat” Takeshi Kitano in the outstanding films Kikujiro and Hanabi.. Takeshi Hamada’s photography brings out the unique qualities of the Japanese countryside, as well as the beauty of the human form, even in death.

Departures transcends its morbid subject and one’s initial apprehension at its unconventional subject is soon swept away by its positive message about the dignity of being human, both in life and in death.

Walter Pless writes from Hobart, Tasmania.