The main protagonist in Yōjirō Takita’s bittersweet Departures is Daigo (played by former boyband star Masahiro Motoki), a cellist who loses his job in a Tokyo-based orchestra at the start of the film. Daigo sells his recently-purchased cello and returns to his rural hometown with wife Mika (Ryōko Hirosue) to live in the house left to him by his late mother. There he gets a new job preparing dead bodies for encoffinment, working under the watchful eye of boss Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki). However, rather than settling down into a new life and a period of relative stability, Daigo has mixed thoughts about this line of work. The job appears to carry with it a degree of social stigma: traditionally those who work with corpses in Japan have been seen as unclean, which explains why Daigo lies about the nature of his new job to Mika. The opinion of the work held by some members of society is summed up when one character mourning the loss of a loved one scoffs at Sasaki and Daigo because they make their living from the dead. However when you see the intricate ritual that takes place – in accordance with Buddhist rites – it seems bizarre that the job does not command anything other than respect; both Daigo and Sasaki take great care preparing dead bodies for funerals, travelling to the houses owned by the deceased before washing, re-clothing and applying make-up to the body in front of close family and friends. They are sympathetic to the mourners, smartly attired, and unflappable in a crisis, and the job is clearly suitable only for those with a certain degree of resolve and people skills. Takita’s oft-repeated trick is to bring in flashes of inappropriate black comedy during the otherwise calm and mesmerising scenes that depict the rituals, such as the brief panic caused when the pair find a male appendage on a trans woman who died while still in the process of transitioning, or a scene in which loved ones bicker over who is at fault for a young girl’s death. This is an attempt to soften the subject matter in order to not put off audience members, and it’s interesting to note that most of the dead bodies the pair deal with belong to women who were young and pretty, and who haven’t been disfigured by accidents or ravaged by illnesses. Indeed when the pair are called to work on the body of an older lady who has been dead for two weeks, but only just discovered by the authorities, it’s noticable that Takita doesn’t film the body in question, only Daigo’s reaction to it.
Though the nature of the job, and Mika’s opinion of it, is problematic, Daigo’s inner turmoil also stems from earlier memories: the break-up of his parents, after which he lost contact with his father, is still a source of anguish, particularly as Daigo’s father encouraged him as a budding musician before the split. Returning to the family home obviously causes these long-buried issues to surface, and Daigo also feels guilty for not being around as much as he ought to have been during his mother’s illness (as such his work with Sasaki can be viewed as a kind of penance, even though he applies for the job without knowing what it entails). All of these factors gradually come to a head, but the problems in Daigo’s life are eventually taken care of by Kundō Koyama’s screenplay, which cleverly brings new life into the equation at the very end of a story otherwise entirely concerned with death (though birth is hinted at throughout via shots of cherry blossom blooming).
Departures was a surprise winner when it picked up the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2009, upsetting the odds to beat clear favourite Waltz With Bashir. Perhaps the surprise stemmed from the fact that Takita’s film is very sentimental, arguably cloyingly so at times, and thus not the kind of thing usually chosen by voters supposedly hardened to such mawkishness. Its good nature won me over, though, and smothered the doubts I had about some of its characters. (Well, principally Mika, who obediently agrees to follow the rather selfish Daigo back to his mother’s house, thereby jacking in her own career and leaving friends and family behind without so much as a single complaint, at least not until much later in the film.) The movie’s best passages are the extended scenes showing the funeral ritual, and the different ways in which mourners cope with death. It feels like a shame when moments of awkward comedy butt in and change the tone, an act of self-sabotage by Takita that instantly demolishes the atmosphere he repeatedly builds, though you could argue Departures would be a much flatter affair without these sudden comic sparks. Largely taking place in small, traditional houses and featuring gathered family members, it’s hard not to think of Ozu during these scenes, and the great Japanese director casts an ominous shadow as with the work of Hirokazu Koreeda, but Takita does at least refrain from keeping a cool distance and shoots his characters close-up, emphasising their emotional changes. When the action moves away from these fascinating rituals it becomes clearer that Departures isn’t concerned with a person’s death as much as it’s concerned with what they leave behind, how they are mourned, and the way in which their passing leaves an unfillable gap. These themes ripple through the lives of Daigo, Sasaki and the people briefly employing them.
Directed by: Yōjirō Takita.
Written by: Kundō Koyama.
Starring: Masahiro Motoki, Ryōko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kimiko Yo.
Cinematography: Takeshi Hamada.
Editing: Akimasa Kawashima.
Music: Joe Hisaishi.
Running Time: 130 minutes.