Jōjirō Takita’s Departures is a movie that is pure and profound. It is not showy in any way; it uses its intelligent screenplay by Kundō Koyama to keep us enraptured and moved in such a way as to feel exuberance. I have seen this movie twice and each time I have been brought to tears without realising it. It envelopes us in a time and place that is so uniquely Japanese, so serene, tranquil and lush that we go in unsure of the movie’s premise and come out enriched by its simplicity.
The story travels through one man’s journey of self-discovery and uses death as his medium. Koyama’s screenplay is so smart that death serves not as a backdrop for our hero’s quest, but as his facilitator. Death is prominent; his personal life is discovered through it.
But it is not just death that propels this narrative forward, it is the treatment of death. The ritualistic way the dead are prepared and sent off to the afterlife, and how death holds many questions for us, both young and old, male and female, rich and poor. We want to know what awaits on the other side. Many of us have faith. Many, myself included, believe that paradise is there. And there are many who believe that nothing awaits. Death is the end of life. Koyama takes this idea of faith and death and infuses it into his screenplay, which sees various families in this rural Japanese town grieve for their departed in various ways, to varying degrees of remorse and anger. To see the families, to see how carefully and lovingly their dead relatives are treated, and then to reflect on our own mortality, is where Departures grows from something possibly cliched to a rich drama overflowing with passion and emotion.
Our hero is Kobayashi Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), a concert cellist in Tokyo whose orchestra has been disbanded. When we first see him, his orchestra performs Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” to a sparse crowd. “Ode To Joy”, on its own, is a masterful composition, but when situated within the context of this story, evolves into something more — a manifesto perhaps. Daigo’s life is his ode to joy. He returns home to his beautiful wife, Mika (Ryōko Hirosue), who takes his retrenchment with a quick step. But then he drops the bombshell: He took out a loan on his cello and now he has no money to pay for it. In defeat, he and Mika pack up and head to the country, back to his home town of Yamagata, where his family house, bequeathed to him by his late mother, still stands, filled with old records and memories. His father walked out on them when Daigo was a small boy and he has never heard from him since. This personal tragedy lays the bedrock of the film. Everything else builds itself upon it, especially death.
Daigo is hired by Mr. Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), the elderly master who operates NK Agency, a small company whose currency is the natural passing of human life. Sasaki’s gift is encoffinment, an antiquated Japanese ritual that prepares and beautifies the deceased in front of the deceased’s family.
Departures opens in medias res — Daigo is deep into his employment and conducts a solo ritual for a family whose daughter has committed suicide. We find out why: She was not a daughter at all, but a confused son, despised by his father for being a crossdresser. The discovery of this surprise is handled delicately by Takita and his crew. As Daigo washes the feminine body beneath the burial gown, he stops at the groin with a squeak, then shuffles back and whispers to Mr. Sasaki, “She’s got a thing. A thing!”. What is effective about this is that we laugh, knowing perfectly well that it’s meant to be funny, but we are not laughing so much that we are lifted out of the moment. The entire process, the ritual, retains its solemnity and beauty and parts naturally to allow a streak of humour to punctuate it. This is a sublime opening scene.
Credit again must go to Koyama’s screenplay, which observes its characters and their situations, gives them time and space to grow, and allows them to delve inwards to examine themselves. There are so many peripherals in this film, so many satellite characters that appear briefly and make an impact. There’s Sasaki’s secretary (Kimiko Yo), at first inviting, but later reveals problems of her own. There’s the elderly owner of the local bathhouse (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) who fights with her son over selling the property. And then there are the numerous families, each of which is given insight and depth. The father of the crossdressing boy breaks down with gratitude in front of Sasaki and Daigo, shielding himself from years of hatred and disapproval towards his son. It is a chilling moment. Another family loses a wife and mother, and we see how her husband progresses from anger to acceptance. The most powerful family scene involves Daigo’s very first solo ritual. He messes up the girl’s makeup, which angers her mother, which then angers her father who blames his wife for not raising their daughter right. Then a younger man with a sling around his arm speaks up from behind, and we learn gradually, through the natural unfolding of the scene, that the girl was killed in a bike accident and the injured boy is her boyfriend. What makes this scene so powerful is Daigo’s presence; he kneels beside the dead girl, ashamed of his failure, helpless as his mistake implodes a grieving family. He is but a witness, created by himself.
And what of his wife Mika? What a woman she is. What a character. I’ve learnt that the Japanese carry a stigma against people who deal with the dead. They are unclean. After handling corpses, they have to undergo a cleansing ritual before returning to society. Daigo doesn’t come without his fair share of snickering onlookers and gossiping friends. The son of the bathhouse lady treats him like a leper. When Daigo finally tells Mika what he does, she packs up and moves back to Tokyo, insulted and broken. “Why don’t you get a proper job?”, she pleads. “Proper?” is his reply. She doesn’t even let him touch her. Now consider this, and then consider her return to Yamagata some time later. What prompts this return? What prompts her later to follow Daigo to one of his rituals? And then how moving is it when she finally understands, accepts, and respects what her husband does? People fear what they don’t understand, they say. Daigo’s job is one that few understand. The ones who do should consider themselves lucky.
Motoki is easily accessible as Daigo. He wears his feelings on his face — his shock at learning the details of his new job; his disgust at picking up the corpse of an old woman who had been dead for 2 weeks; his love and admiration for his wife (and his cello); his fondness for his memories; his sadness when the end comes. Yes, Departures’ story is familiar and predictable. We know where Daigo will end up. But this is not what I take away from it; Departures is not about Daigo’s journey. It is about the journey of all those who have died. The ritual is slow, precise, touching. The idea is enchanting. It’s unfortunate that much of Japan has abolished it. At the start of this review I said that this movie is uniquely Japanese. I didn’t say this because it is filmed in Japan, no. I said it because what Sasaki and Daigo do in this movie cannot be done anywhere else. It cannot be done in Singapore or Australia. It certainly cannot be done in Hollywood. Takita has crafted a superior movie here that no one else can replicate, and no one else should.