Every human culture has its own death ritual, and if most of us thought about it much, we probably never considered how something common to every human on the planet can be regarded so differently. Because death, as equalising as it is, is a very personal thing. It’s difficult to understand someone else’s grief, difficult to face it in others and difficult to deal with it within one’s self. So, for a film to treat the topic of death, grief and the people absent from our lives with both the humanity and the sensitivity that Departures has done is a rare and fine achievement, one that was honoured with an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009 and one that surely proves cinema as the feeling heart of our shared cultures.
Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki, Bird People of China) is a man on the edge of realising his dream as a concert cellist. Unfortunately, that dream is crushed when the orchestra he finally gets a place in is closed soon after. Despondent and worried about how he’ll pay off the new, expensive cello he invested in, he takes his wife (Ryoko Hirosue, Love Collage) and returns to his family home in Yamagata in north Honshu. There amidst mixed feelings and hazy memories of the father that abandoned him as a child, he responds to a job add in the paper for a ‘departures’ company. Diago’s thinking ‘travel’ but instead discovers that the job is in fact for an ‘encoffineer’, nokanshi in Japanese – someone who dresses the dead in preparation for burial.
In modern Western culture such work is usually the task of the mortician, and the process takes place behind closed doors and away from the eyes of the grieving family and friends, regardless of whether the coffin is open or closed for the funeral. In Japan, however, this death ritual takes place in the presence of the bereaved and is conducted with the same sense of ceremony that the Japanese do anything. As a ritual it’s both foreign and fascinating to watch, but director Yojiro Takita (When the Last Sword is Drawn) and TV-turned-screenwriter Kundo Koyama have handled this content in such a way that the details of the process are secondary to its purpose; by dressing the deceased with respect and care in front of the bereaved, grief is acknowledged, allowed and perhaps most meaningfully, accepted.
The forms this grief takes are many and varied. A little reminiscent of Kore-eda’s own ode to change, After Life, the scenes where Daigo and his mentor Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki, Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World) perform their duties for each family are some of the most powerfully touching, gently humorous scenes in the film – and all very different. In one scene there is rage; in another, several generations of women are leaving lipstick kisses on their dearly departed’s still face and joyfully bidding him goodbye. In another scene, a family honours a son’s life choice and has him made up for his journey the way he would have liked; in yet another, a mother demonstrates her inability to accept what are ultimately her own failures and regrets. These scenes are honest, real; they’re not necessarily an easy thing to watch, but neither are they as horrifying or as discomforting as one would expect, because with each scene Takita is trying to tell us something important, something we should already really know, deep down: death is intrinsic to life, it is change, it is something to be celebrated as much as birth, it is a thing of beauty in its own right, it is what merely what it is.
But as Daigo learns his trade, and comes to appreciate the importance of such work, his own losses linger with no visible chance at resolution. The ‘stone letter’ his father gave him when he was a boy is a dark, weighty thing, and he plays on the cello he used as a child as if he is still in the process of growing up as he struggles to understand why he was abandoned and perhaps more importantly why his father never came back. Departures is one of those films that you cannot help but be affected by, even if only for its duration. Its open, honest look at death through someone who works with it has an almost revelatory effect and its sense of compassion and grace is perhaps something to which many of us can only aspire.