When Takita Yojiro voiced his disbelief upon winning ‘Best Foreign Film’ at the 2009 Academy Awards, it was easy to understand where he was coming from. Certainly the underdog amongst a chosen few, Departures traverses some serious territory when it comes to deconstructing the time-honoured tradition of Noukanshi, literally meaning “to encoffin”. The Nokanfu, as written by Shinmon Aoki in 1996 (his experiences as a mortician from which Deaprtures is based) is bestowed the task of preparing the dead for the long journey that awaits them in the afterlife. This involves a delicate procedure of cleansing and re-dressing which can be readily associated with many cultures around the world; however there’s something very unique in the artistry of what these select few manage. By its very nature the profession is one largely considered to be taboo in its homeland, but on the face of Yojiro’s compelling tale it’s hopefully one that will earn the respect and understanding it rightfully deserves, as the director instils the belief that we should never judge a book by its cover.
For Daigo Kobayashi (Motoko Masahiro) he’s about to be thrust into a situation he’d never have imagined in a million years. When his new career turn as a professional cellist falls to the wayside after the disbandment of his orchestra, he must quickly think up a new way of securing an income, which includes selling his newly purchased and prized instrument. With few other prospects he doesn’t know what else to do with his future. He decides, along with his doting wife Mika (Hirosue Ryoko), to start up a new life in his old rural hometown. There he spots an advertisement which states nothing more than “Helping with Journeys”. Only it’s not quite the travel agency he expected.
Upon arrival he meets the elderly Ikuei Sasaki (Yamazaki Tsutomu ) and his secretary Yuriko (Kimiko Yo). Sasaki employs him on the spot, showing a complete disinterest in his professional resume. He offers him a tantalising salary before Daigo can even ask what the job is. Not many people stay past asking such a question, and sure enough Daigo is ready to bolt when he learns that he’ll be a Noukanshi’s assistant. The need for money proves too much for him though; Daigo accepts the offer and returns home. He keeps his wife in the dark, knowing that she’ll disapprove of his new profession, but it’s not long before she does learn of his activities and demands that he quit for a “respectable” job. With his marriage on the rocks; old friends beginning to shun him; and the shattered remainders of an awkward upbringing creeping its way back into his life, Daigo must ultimately decide what is right for his own well being.
Although Shinmon Aoki had already expressed his disappointment with regard to certain sacrifices being made to the script (he ended up refusing to have his name or book associated with the credits), he has nonetheless spoken well of the film’s success. Personal ties aside I imagine it’s difficult not to appreciate this cinematic account, which manages to comfortably nestle itself between factual documentation and social drama. While the narrative is there to be exploited, and indeed there is no shortage of timely twists from writer Kundo Koyama, the overall feeling here is that Takita Yojiro, who has enjoyed previous success with his far louder and spiritually fantastical Ashura has struck a delicate balance of good humour and heartfelt poignancy. More importantly, Departures doesn’t morbidly dwell on death, despite its seemingly gloomy facade, but rather in fact celebrates life itself.
The tale is told in a largely reflective manner, cleverly juxtaposing the existence of its central protagonist with that of the philosophical ideals that his newfound job entails: that life is a journey and death signals its destination – but what is it that we’re meant to do with the time between? It’s through entering the homes of complete strangers and diverse families that Daigo slowly comes to terms with the failings of his own upbringing and the prospects of abandoned dreams, as destiny plays no small part in leading him toward his ultimate fate. Koyama’s themes are diverse and naturally humanistic, which allows for a tremendous amount of sympathy to be stirred as our emotions are triggered at regular intervals, with help in no small part thanks to composer Joe Hisaishi, whose beautiful undercurrents resonate through the soul. Skilfully though, director Yojiro earns our empathy amidst all this personal loss by downplaying its tragedy, simply because of its natural appointment; there’s an inherent respect here undoubtedly aimed toward every person watching who has at some point lost a loved one through various circumstances. While Daigo’s awkward situation – which inevitably befalls onto his wife and the local community – lends the narrative a required coherence, it’s the masterfully staged ceremonies themselves that tug on our hearts in bringing together families, highlighting bonds and conveying how one life can be affected for the better through another.
Terrifically acted throughout, with its lead Motoki Masahiro delivering such a passionate and beautifully understated performance for what was to be his pet project, Departures rightfully deserved to be the toast of the 2009 Oscars. An emotionally rewarding feature which reminds us that no matter where we’re from or what we do in life, we’re all the same underneath and should do well to appreciate the little time we have on this planet.