At first glance, the plot of Departures looks awfully familiar. In the world of contemporary dramas, there’s nothing much new about a film in which a young man living in a big city (like Tokyo) with a respectable career (like as a professional concert cellist) moves back to his small home town and consequently comes to terms with deeply-repressed issues (like resentment towards an absent father) and learns new ways to find joy in life. Sure, that young man takes an oddball job upon returning home—he becomes in encoffinment (nokan), the practice of preparing dead bodies for public viewing before their cremation—but that’s just the sort of quirk that routinely takes an average tear-pulling redemption story and turns into Oscar-bait (Departures won last year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film).
And yes, half the novelty of Departures, at least for the many viewers not familiar with the practice, is watching the movie’s protagonist Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) carefully wash the recently departed’s bodies, change them into the the traditional death clothes in front of their friends and families without revealing an inch of skin, and making-up their faces to reflect as closely as possible who they were in life. And yes, the dramatic moments can occasionally get a little hammy, what with Daigo’s wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) constantly closing her eyes and filling with visible pride every time Daigo learns another important life lesson (and to be honest, we as the audience are always certain he will indeed learn it).
But somehow Departures transcends these award-season clichés. Mostly it’s the little touches that make this film seem more like an accurate portrayal of how real people deal with a common but little-talked-about situation like death than a regurgitation of various ‘powerful moments’ we have all seen on screen a million times before.
If there’s one thing Japanese cinema is used to, it’s stories about sensitive, talented artists who suffer for their craft. But one smart decision on the part of the filmmakers is to downplay the significance of Daigo leaving the musical world behind. That particular plot point’s greatest significance lies in the fact that it allows Departures to highlight its dramatic scenes with a sweeping, cello-heavy orchestral score that would seem cloying if not for the knowledge of Daigo’s love of his instrument. When it comes to his past career’s effect on his life, however, he’s just good enough of a musician to know how mediocre a talent he really is in a place like Tokyo. And he isn’t forced to return to his little town because of any great personal tragedy, but simply because his orchestra folds as a result of declining public interest in classical music.
The real external conflict Daigo faces is the reactions provoked by his new job. The movie subtly tricks the audience into believing Daigo is perhaps more embarrassed about his new profession than he should be. After all, Daigo and his boss receive a great deal of gratitude from the families of those they prepare for viewing, and Mika is a kind, caring woman who seems to accept Daigo’s shifting passions and repressed emotions as calmly as she accepted their move away from Tokyo. Yet it turns out that Daigo has good reason to hide what he really does everyday from his wife, and he soon wishes other acquaintances were kept in the dark as well, especially when one childhood friend angrily demands that Daigo stay away from him and his family unless he finds a “real job”.
While the movie treats the work of Daigo and his employer as something exquisitely developed and beautiful to behold, and invites us to gaze upon each carefully ordered movement of the elaborate rituals and feel the same sense of awe over the transformation they work over these lifeless corpses that the watching families do, it is not afraid to find humor in what many would assume to be a somewhat morbid profession. The very first ceremony the audience sees, as the film opens, involves Daigo washing a young woman’s corpse down in front of her family, only to find a little something extra down by the crotch area under the death shroud.
But although the awkwardness Daigo experiences trying to broach the issue of the deceased’s transexuality with her parents is funny, it also leads to a later scene where the father, who could never bring himself to accept his son’s gender choices, thanks the encoffiners for allowing him to see his son as he—or she—really wanted to be. And that’s the central theme to Departures: the idea that some issues will never be resolved fully between two people, but that rapprochement can still be made after an event like death makes one-on-one communication impossible.
Daigo may hate his father for running out on him and his mother, but he will never be able to fulfill his fantasy of hitting the man who gave birth to him (and nurtured his love of the cello) with his bare fists. Daigo, and the other characters in this lovely film, can’t directly address those they believe owe them apologies or those they hope will offer them forgiveness. But they can accept that just because there are things one might wish would never happen (like death), there is no reason to let that ruin life.
The DVD version comes with English subtitles, and a couple of extras, including a trailer and an interview with the director, Yojiro Takita. The actual film does such an effective job of presenting its themes that further explanation from the filmmaker is hardly necessary, but it is interesting to hear that certain plot elements, like Daigo’s boss’ addiction to good food even while surrounded by corpses, were inspired by observation of real-life encoffiners. It’s also a little cute to hear about the humble beginnings of Departures and the societal barricades Takita thought the story—about a subject and profession considered rather taboo in Japan—would face, given that the film ended up grossing a hefty sum in Japanese theaters. After all, every good Oscar-winner needs a good rags-to-riches story, and this is one that one surely deserves it.