Film Review: Departures / Okuribito (2008)
Life in a Pine Box
by Ender’s Girl
Motoki Masahiro, Yamazaki Tsutomu, Hirosue Ryoko, Yoshiyuki Kazuko, Yo Kimiko, Sasano Takahashi
Directed by Takita Yojiro / Shochiku and Regent Releasing, 2008
In a Nutshell:
A newly unemployed cellist moves back to his hometown with his young wife in tow, following the sudden disbandment of his city orchestra. While scouting for a temporary job, he mistakenly answers a classified ad for what turns out to be… a funeral service agency.
(SpoilLert: Lots of dead people!)
Running through the fabric of our lives are these little seams that go unnoticed — or, if ever seen, receive no more than a passing glance. Our days whiz by in a fevered blur of faces and deadlines, and it is only when we have actually lost someone precious — perhaps a family member, a lover, or a dear friend — that this mad hustle of life comes screeching to a halt. The death of a loved one is perhaps the single biggest disruption in a person’s life, an event one can never prepare for enough. And when this happens to you, society now expects you to play the part of “the bereaved,” and your dead loved one, “the deceased” — as if an entire life could be folded and tucked away into these neat little labels. You find yourself floundering in the deep end, for the first time trying to figure out what to do, who to call, which arrangements to make — even as you sort through your own jumbled emotions of grief and loss, even as you grapple with the inner turmoil and unanswered questions still weighing on your mind like an oil slick. And you are only too relieved to have Them — the undertaker, the embalmer, the funeral director — take over for you, these grave-faced professionals in somber dark suits who have made death their business. As they politely but firmly usher you through this whole ordeal, you comply without hesitation — and even draw unexpected strength and comfort from their presence. Only then do you finally notice the little seams in the tapestry and realize how indispensable they are, how these overlooked seams are actually what hold the entire fabric of life together.
Departures is about one of these seams, these little obsequies we pay the dead that help bring meaning in the midst of tragedy, and validation to our lives. Traditional funeral rites in Japan carry an elegant simplicity that is hard to find elsewhere, and perhaps it is the formality of Japanese culture that helps underscore the solemnity of death and bring dignity to the mourning process. There is deep reverence accorded the departed, which ironically seems commensurate to the stigma still attached to those working in the Japanese funeral industry. But Departures delves into these social mores with utmost sensitivity, these points of overlap between the broader, more universal aspects of death and bereavement, as well as the special rites of passage that are uniquely Japanese.
There are no dramatic fireworks in Departures, no earth-shattering issues to contend with — but that’s precisely what I love about it. It’s an intimate little film whose understated style complements the thematic material quite beautifully: there’s a certain stillness in the dialogue and in the framing of shots that finds its own strange symmetry in the quietude — and quietus — of the bodies that the protagonist, Kobayashi Daigo (Motoki Masahiro) prepares for “encoffinment” (or the art of nokan). Even Daigo’s sensitive and reflective nature captures the very spirit of the film — and the viewer’s heart as well. For this is Daigo’s story above all, his own personal crossing from death to rebirth that runs parallel to the final voyages made by his departed clientele. Departures is really about the journeys we all take, in this life as well as the next, which sometimes have those unexpected detours that lead us off the beaten path and into strange new terrain. When Daigo’s orchestra becomes the latest casualty of the recession, his own small-town dreams of becoming a big-city cellist die as well. When reality bites, it bites down hard, taking a chunk of your flesh — and your beloved cello — with it. So it is with great reluctance that Daigo forsakes the bright lights of the Tokyo megalopolis for the snow-capped mountains of his rural hometown — a move whose true significance he is not to fully grasp until much later.
Ex-Johnny (yes, as in Jimusho, lol) Motoki Masahiro is probably THE poster boy for the Idol-to-Respected-Actor career path, and I have no doubt that the current crop of Johnnies (or maybe just those with any smidgen of self-awareness, heh) all wish to emulate his “Success Story of a Bright Johnny’s Boy” (lol). (Heck, some Idols might be going around this very moment with an Oscar acceptance speech running through their heads, dreaming up their own award-winning performance a few decades hence.) But it took the right mix of talent, hard work, good role choices, and enough lucky breaks to get to where Motoki is now, something the younger Johnnies would do well to remember. I don’t know how much Motoki has grown as an artist since his J-Pop idol days in the ‘80s, but he certainly seems to have come into his own as an actor, portraying his character Daigo with genuine openness, empathy, and likability.
So Daigo finds himself in the last profession he ever expected to end up in, working for this small but thriving company subcontracted by the local undertaker to administer funeral rites prior to cremation. But little does he know how much he will later grow to love his work, and believe that the ministrations he and his boss, Sasaki (Yamazaki Tsutomu) perform for the deceased (and for those who are left behind) — really, truly matter. But there’s still that “unclean” tag associated with such a trade — in fact, the nature of the work is so mortifying (literally, haha) that Daigo can’t even disclose the details to his wife, Mika (Hirosue Ryoko). In spite of this added complication, he comes to realize that there is great worth in what they do at NK Agency, which is to send off the dead with honor and dignity, and at the same time help the bereaved cope with their loss and achieve some measure of closure. So unshakable becomes Daigo’s faith in his newfound calling, that he is even willing to risk separation from Mika — and possibly, a failed marriage. So it comes as a great relief that Mika later finds a way to reconcile her disappointment and hurt with a new appreciation for her husband’s work, and come to see it as something that is valuable, noble — even beautiful.
The grief of the bereaved that Daigo witnesses throughout each encoffinment ceremony is genuine, and the loss of a loved one so acute, but the treatment is never overly sentimental, nor is it in any way irreverent or unsympathetic. On the contrary, the writing has great compassion for the characters and what they go through, and yet Death is neither glorified nor downplayed — it is simply seen for what it is: a passage, a crossing, just another part of the journey we all must take. But there are bright spots of humor, irony and warmth that help the film toe the fine line between the funny and the funereal. The opening scene is a perfect example of this, and is built up superbly until the clincher comes, when the deceased that Daigo is preparing for encoffinment is revealed to be — a transgender. There are other such gems — like the time Daigo first applies at NK Agency and espies the three huge coffins propped against the wall, and soon realizes what his prospective job really entails — much to the viewer’s amusement; or his nauseating first assignment which has him heaving over a two-week-old corpse; or when he plays the unwilling cadaver for an infomercial DVD, wincing in distress while his boss implacably demonstrates the nokan ceremony before the cameras. (Daigo’s face = LOL!!!!) Even the typographical error that rewords the employment ad from “the departed” to “departures,” deftly plays up the semantic nuances of these terms, and reminds the viewer of how significant this send-off ceremony is, this sacred act of giving our dead safe passage.
Subtending the main plot is a small nexus of human connections that Daigo finds in this sleepy little town. Some relationships are new, like the affectionate father-son bond that grows between him and his boss, Sasaki (Yamazaki Tsutomu), or his friendship with NK Agency’s offbeat receptionist/bookkeeper/office assistant, Yuriko (Yo Kimiko). (The scene where the three NK agents celebrate Christmas Eve over fried chicken and Daigo’s cello playing — has little dialogue, but it wonderfully captures their camaraderie and the very essence of their characters, not to mention the spirit of the season.) Other relationships are re-established ties with old faces from Daigo’s childhood, particularly the elderly lady running the neighborhood bathhouse (Yoshiyuki Kazuko), and the ojiisan (Sasano Takashi) who has loved her for 50 years and has become her constant companion and most loyal patron. Who knew that this quiet laidback town held such treasures, such wise and wonderful human beings? — This sense of appreciation dawns on Daigo as he learns to cherish his new friends, though some pass through his life all too briefly. Well, God bless this movie for bringing together all my favorite old people, splendid actors all. Their characters are supposedly “minor” but they succeed in touching you so deeply and so powerfully.
My favorite character next to Daigo would be the NK Agency owner himself, Sasaki (Yamazaki Tsutomu, may you live forever!), who is the kind of boss you can’t NOT love and respect. I am in awe of this actor, and was truly delighted to see him in this film. He plays complex characters so effortlessly, and the little quirks he injects into a role are nothing but organic. (Haha, I called his character on Kurosagi “Old Man Pickle,” so I guess this means his character in Departures should be named “Old Man Cactus,” lol.) The razor-sharp Sasaki’s pragmatic approach to the funeral trade is the philosophical flip side of Daigo’s greenhorn sensibility, as Daigo still views his nokanshi profession as something wondrous and magical — even spiritual. One of my favorite scenes is the quiet little moment that Daigo shares with Sasaki in his greenhouse atop the NK tower. “I hate myself,” the boss murmurs waggishly as he bites into his grilled puffer roe, encouraging Daigo to do the same. The single most trenchant line in the film comes from this old man feasting on the roe: “This is a corpse: the living eat the dead… Unless you want to die, you eat. And if you eat, eat well.” More than Daigo it is Sasaki, who himself has experienced love and loss on an epic scale, who best understands the natural order of things: this unbroken rhythm of living and dying, of arrivals and leave-takings, a cosmic pattern older than the ages. And yet it is from this unsentimental encoffineer that Daigo learns to respect his own calling, and to treat the deceased with utmost compassion and respect.
Certain scenes in the final third of the film have a poignancy that can move even the hardest of hearts, and moisten even the driest of eyes. You realize that this film is more of a celebration of Life amid the inescapable reality of Death — whatever your views on the Afterlife may be. And nowhere else in the film is this simple truth captured more beautifully than the very last scene, where Daigo tends the body of his long-lost father, a drifter who apparently died penniless and alone. This is Daigo’s final service as a son, and his own way of reaching closure after years of embitterment towards the man who abandoned their family. But in the midst of his father’s passing, Daigo finds cause for great rejoicing in the new life growing inside his wife Mika. For it is the relationships that we nurture with the people we love that make life special, and enable us to live with decency — so that we may later die with dignity. Also, the hauntingly beautiful score by Joe Hisaishi (Spirited Away!!!!!!) is reason enough to watch Departures, and the cello solos in particular — especially the main theme, “Memory” — strike a chord in all our hearts that is as potent and deep-rooted as love and grief themselves.
Artistic & technical merit: A+
Entertainment value: A
Photo credits: asianbeam.com, crunchyroll.com, hamsapsukebe.blogspot.com, imdb.com, japanator.com, japantimes.com, progressivepulse.com