Yojiro Takita’s mature drama about loss finds beauty in both life and death.
“Winters didn’t feel this cold when I was a child.”
It’s never easy to talk candidly about death, even in the most forward-thinking cultures. I don’t mean in an action movie “gun everyone down” kind of way; I mean real death, the idea that somebody who was once a part of your life is now no more, just a body – ostensibly an object. So it’s natural that taboos surrounding death pop up in every country. In Japan, there is a concept known as kegare, roughly translating as impurity, a Shinto term that relates to people who handle, literally, such things.
This makes for a strange irony for Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), the once-cellist who takes this job after returning to his hometown. As he gains experience in the much-maligned job, he begins to learn its importance within communities, and its necessity in helping families move on. When his friends find out, however, he is shunned. Even his wife, the usually chipper and smiling Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) asks him to find a new job. Anything, as long as it isn’t that.
Departures is a lot of things, but mature is one of the best words I can find to describe it. It never goes too far in one direction, instead opting for the audience to understand where these opposing views are coming from. Mika isn’t suddenly a terrible person: she just doesn’t understand what Daigo and his boss Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) are doing. Hell, even the clients tend to be apprehensive at first. Writer Kundo Koyama strikes a good balance between its subjects of loss and acceptance, and the result is a thematically rich, emotionally complex movie that gets it right almost every time.
Daigo seems to be the sort of man who finds fulfilment in bringing joy to others. At first, this comes from his playing to crowds but as soon as the orchestra is disbanded, his life seems to have little meaning. He meanders back to his hometown, hoping to find something there (only to be reminded constantly of his father, who abandoned him a long time ago), before sort of accidentally stumbling into his position. However, by working with death, Daigo finds meaning in his life once more, and finds solace and satisfaction in making people’s final moments with their lost ones memorable and blissful.
It’s natural that such a movie – one where death is the primary subject – will be about life. Such comparisons are inevitable and even necessary. Where Departures surprises, though, is in its maturity and its ability to hold back. It’s sweet without being saccharine, and poignant without resorting to soap opera dramatics. OK, there might be a couple of soapy moments and a few convenient coincidences, but they’re easily ignored when looking at the bigger picture. After all, with fates – both current and ultimate – as such a strong theme throughout, it’s fair to say that Departures will probably have a few coincidences, and that’s fine.
Also peppered throughout the film are moments of humour and unexpected comedy. These are expert touches made to lighten what could have easily been a real bummer of a picture. Funny moments permeate the entire movie, and succeed in never being cheap or dumb. The script uses life (and also an autobiography) as its source material, and life is notoriously stupid and funny, usually in the most inappropriate ways. By using these moments to their advantage, the filmmakers ended up with a product that feels genuine, even when you can see the seams. Throw in a great soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi and Depatures becomes a near-perfect picture of life and death, loaded with earnest emotion.
Verdict: Thoughtful, emotional and sweet, Departures is a deeply satisfying, tear-jerking drama.
Overall entertainment: 9/10
Dry Eyes: None
Cellos: One normal type, one baby version
Mika: I’d have loved to her initial reaction when she first saw Daigo’s corporate training video
Also known as: おくりびと (Okuribito), lit. “one who sends off”
Director: Yojiro Takita
Writer: Kundo Koyama
Masahiro Motoki – Daigo Kobayashi
Tsutomu Yamazaki – Ikuei Sasaki
Ryoko Hirosue – Mika
Sanae Miyata – Naomi
Kazuko Yoshiyuki – Tsuyako
Kimiko Yo – Yuriko
Takashi Sasano – Shokichi
Tetta Sugimoto – Yamashita
Toru Minegishi – Yoshiki
Tatsuo Yamada – Togashi
Taro Ishida – Sonezaki