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'The Departure' Casts a Loving Gaze Upon an Unconventional Buddhist Priest

(IMDB)

The Departure is a searching study of a universally relatable character who has seen a great deal of sorrow in this world.


The Departure

Director: Lana Wilson
Cast: Ittetsu Nemoto, Yukiko Nemoto, Teppei Nemoto
Studio: Matson Films
US Release date: 2017-10-13

When one thinks of a Buddhist priest, what comes to mind is probably not a heavy drinking, middle-aged night owl who occasionally takes trips from his temple in rural Japan to dance alone at midnight haunts; or who, after a stressful day inundated with suicidal texts and phone calls from his clients, nevertheless invites a handful of his charges for a boozy bonfire in his backyard. But Ittetsu Nemoto: the subject of director Lana Wilson’s deeply meditative documentary The Departure, has never adhered to conventions. If he did so, he fears he might betray those in need.

According to Nemoto, his unorthodox lifestyle cultivates his ability to empathize with suicidal individuals and guide them toward valuing their lives. The Departure reflects on whether he can sustain this approach as he is forced to face his own mortality, and the prospect of less time with his wife, Yukiko, and adorable child, Teppei.

The earlier stages in the film portray Nemoto’s conduction of a “departure” ceremony, where he asks attendees to record things or people they value in their lives. Wilson’s direction of the ceremony is remarkably sensitive, providing close-ups of the participants’ fragility as they write their simple, delicately drawn values on thin strips of paper (“body” says one sheet, “love” pleads another).

Nemoto asks everyone to destroy their papers until three, one, and then none remain. Nemoto gently explains his point: upon death, the final tally of life’s simple yet beautiful offerings is zero and shall remain so forever. His audience, some tearful, are gracious for Nemoto’s help. However, The Departure only sparingly scrutinizes why the participants are so appreciative of Nemoto’s efforts. Did they learn any lessons? Are they on the road to recovery? In any event, the scene is remarkable for its genuine compassion and tenderness.

Indeed, Nemoto is a compassionate, radiant hero who translates well onto the big screen. Tall and handsome, with a soothingly nonjudgmental countenance and an effusive sense of humor, it's easy to understand how emotionally troubled individuals find solace in his presence. At the same time, he's an exhausted and flawed man with eyes that look inward into a troubled past and an enormously burdensome daily routine which is slowly taking his own life.

With each “I want to die” text message or suicidal email, Nemoto’s attention veers away from his own life  --  a heart-to-heart with Yukiko, or long overdue playtime with Teppei -- and onto the next distraught person. Soon Nemoto is traveling on trains and subways to informally counsel yet another client. Wilson provides repetitive footage of this loop of events, effectively capturing Nemoto in a somber routine of depressing topical matter, and what appears to be a series of back-breaking commutes at all hours of the day.

To deal with the stress of these visits (and maybe also because he’s still attached to his past as an anarchic young man), Nemoto regularly unwinds with a devil-may-care regimen of chain-smoking, liquor, and late nights. Of course, this life has taken a toll on his body: he has already suffered a heart attack, and his doctor warns him that his heart and artery problems continue to get worse. The advice doesn’t seem to phase Nemoto all too much, even with a son and wife.

The irony of Nemoto’s job, given his hazardous choices, is not lost on his mother, who argues midway through the film that if Nemoto were to conduct a healthier life, he may be able to set a more convincing example for his clients. Wilson doesn’t choose to explore this point too deeply, which is a shortcoming in her somewhat overly reverential treatment of Nemoto. If Nemoto is so ambivalent to a salutary lifestyle, then how does this square with his sentimental urges to find contentment in life’s wholesome offerings, like cherry blossoms? Does his sleep-deprived state and unhealthy diet adversely affect his temperament or awareness during consultation sessions? These unanswered questions prove to be distractions, given the film’s dire and nuanced subject matter.

Wilson’s passive depiction of Nemoto’s visits, in which a camera rests and watches Nemoto work with a small sample of clients, often sacrifices a critical perspective for sentimentality (finer details on Nemoto’s work are provided in Larissa MacFarquhar’s New Yorker profile article, "Last Call" (24 June 2013), which serves as a fine supplement to the film). However, at times Wilson’s approach yields surprisingly candid conversation which should resonate well after the film is over.

In one scene, Nemoto shares a heap of comfort food with a suicidal divorced father and quietly listens as the client emotes on how the worst part of his month is at the end of visitation time with his kids because he will then have to wait for weeks to see them again. Nemoto advises his client to think of how his kids will feel if they lose even that day with their father. Food continues to get consumed, perhaps easing the pain for a short while. But the father can’t seem to shake his grief, and the next suicide call feels only a short while away.

When the client falls deeper into depression later in the film, Nemoto opens up to him even more, suggesting that he's a bad father because he has let his job interfere with raising his kid. This time, Nemoto’s client has a truly cathartic release. By living his life on the margins, Nemoto has a variety of relational experiences to use when trying to comfort his clients’ through closeness.

Not every scene in the film hits these open and honest notes. In Nemoto’s session with a young lady and her skeptical father, the tone feels curiously strained if not polite, given the disagreements going on. The same can be said for scenes in which Nemoto’s impossibly patient wife only gently criticizes his priorities, even though her loving entreaties are cast upon deaf ears. These conversations, which should lend some emotional freedom, become entirely too self-aware of the camera’s presence.

Despite its shortcomings, The Departure confidently centers itself on a searching study of a universally relatable character who has seen a great deal of sorrow in this world. Nemoto’s struggle to let go of some of his pain  --  of his life crippling burden to his clients, a backstory littered with family suicides, or his own dark fascination with death  --  is felt with his every step.

Late in the film, having just returned from the hospital, Nemoto reads a text message from a client but decides not to respond. He’s tired, and perhaps it’s time to focus on his own health and family. However, immediately after putting away his phone he begins to shake. In many ways, we can all relate to Ittetsu Nemoto.

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