Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a devoted cellist in an orchestra that has just been dissolved and now finds himself without a job. Daigo decides to move back to his old hometown with his wife to look for work and start over. He answers a classified ad entitled "Departures" thinking it is an advertisement for a travel agency only to discover that the job is actually for a "Nokanshi" or "encoffineer," a funeral professional who prepares deceased bodies for burial and entry into the next life. While his wife and others despise the job, Daigo takes a certain pride in his work and begins to perfect the art of "Nokanshi," acting as a gentle gatekeeper between life and death, between the departed and the family of the departed. The film follows his profound and sometimes comical journey with death as he uncovers the wonder, joy and meaning of life and living.
Departures is a movie about an awkward young man called, Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) who becomes an apprentice to the trade of 'encoffinment", a practice whereby specialists prepare a corpse for burial in a ritualised engagement performed in front of the departed one’s family and friends as part of the funeral service.
The characters here must deal with the dead in Japanese director Yojira Takita’s solid po-faced comedy of manners, but the movie, funny and sentimental as it is, isn’t really about death at all. Takita and screenwriter Kundo Koyama seem to want to engage us in a kind of dialogue about the emotional juice that keeps us all going, love and commitment. It’s also a movie about finding meaning in a job of work that can conceivably last a lifetime (a timely and unfashionable theme indeed, in an age when work seems less a choice about skill and expertise and more about lifestyle!).
There are essentially two strands to the plot of Departures. One centres on Daigo’s sense of discovery about people and family, as he becomes absorbed in the minutiae of his new gig. His initial distaste for the job (which involves undressing the corpse) gives way to compassion for the grieving families. In a way the econffinment ritual becomes a narrow portal through which Daigo and his avuncular boss Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) can get a small but nevertheless significant glimpse into the life of the recently departed (as when Daigo discovers much to his embarrassment that a beautiful female suicide is actually a boy).
The other major plot figure in the film – which deals with Daigo’s efforts to keep secret his new job from friends and doting wife Mika (Ryoko Hriosue), because it is seen as 'dirty" 'unclean" and culturally and morally belittling – starts out as a goofy piece of comic relief. But half-way through it becomes powerfully clear that Takita and his collaborators see Daigo’s growing interest in the job, and the dignity that grows within him, as being central to the action.
Perhaps the least satisfying aspect of the film is a bit of psychological plotting that’s both sentimental and rather glib; Daigo was abandoned by his father and it’s a bitter memory that he finds impossible to lay to rest.
The lighting, visual style and pace seems designed to be soothing; the settings, modest homes in northern Japan, often feel like we’ve stepped inside a show room, lovingly appointed to conjure the right feelings of comfort and cosiness.
Still, Takita directs the movie with a gentle pace and a deliberately wry mood; the jokes are small and never allowed to linger and almost all of them centre on the uneasy relationship we have our own bodies – and the understandable but morbid fear of dead ones, too.
But most of all Departures tries to make the case that even if the Departed end up in some one else’s 'hands", it’s the emotional residue from Death that must be cleaned up by the Loved Ones. It might be a truism and it might sound glib, but Takita understands the fear that such a responsibility brings.
Airs 9:40PM, Sun 6 Oct on SBS World Movies
Genre: Music, Drama
Director: Yôjirô Takita
Starring: Masahiro Motoki, Ryôko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki