"The human soul needs beauty even more than it needs bread."
Yojiro Takita's Departures has a sublime premise, full of the potential for both beauty and horror. It is is a well-crafted film that touches all walks of live who must face the inevitable—death. Each time we come across death, life takes on new meanings because of the encounter. The film reminds us that even that which seems so bleak and even unclean can hold beauties we never expect. The film does not shy away from being sentimental while dealing with a sensitive topic. Yet, it eloquently transforms the moaning of death into a celebration of love among the living.
Ironically, death is for the living, and Departures is an observation that a life has been left for the contemplation of those who still breathe. A failed classical cellist, Daigo (Masahiro Motoki), moves back to his hometown after his Tokyo orchestra goes under for lack of an audience. He answers an ad for what looks like a travel agency. However, in this case, “departures” means an elaborate postmortem ritual in which, before the eyes of the deceased’s family, the body is elaborately washed, made up, and “encoffined.” Daigo takes the job of assisting the brusque owner (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and soon becomes an an outcast—“unclean” even in the eyes of his chirpy, supportive little wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). Yet he proceeds. Miserable at the outset, he comes to see that the service he performs is vital, even holy—that watching a loved one encoffined provides the typically conservative Japanese family with a blessed release.
Daigo starts to play the cello again, the one he had as a child. During the Christmas holidays, he plays "Ave Maria" for Sasaki and his secretary (Kimiko Yo), and they are impressed with his talent. They are already happy with the way he has taken to his work, and he is now doing ceremonies on his own. In three different rituals, Daigo realizes that he is creating beautiful music in these new settings. In one ceremony, he allows family members to put children's white socks on their deceased grandmother; in another, he is surprised while washing a female suicide victim; and, in the most touching of all, he deals with his own feelings of grief when called upon to prepare the body of Yamashita's mother, who ran a local bath house and played an influential role in Daigo's childhood.
While we try to push death away, Departures pushes us to consider the interaction between life and death. The food we eat, Sasaki reminds Daigo, is made from corpses. Death is always close by, though we usually are blind to it. The attendant at the crematory reflects that he's seen so many come through, but he always thinks, "Off you go. We'll meet again." However, there is more to it than just the knowledge that we all will die. It is embracing death as an important part of our lives. Sasaki says at one point that he is afraid of dying, but he is not afraid of death. Most people fail to understand such a crucial difference. Rather than viewing death as something fearful, Departures shows how closely life and its meaning is tied to mortality, and how death and its meaning is tied to life. In one scene as Daigo sees a body and the personal possessions, a key person from Daigo's past, he wonders what it says about this person's life that he lived seventy years but only has a box of stuff to show for it. Daigo, nevertheless, goes on to astonishing discoveries as he prepares this body. Departures makes this point in various ways. Evidently, the story itself leads us to consider the beauty involved in both life and death, but the film shows us the true beauty in the very presence of death. The metaphor for loss is right there onscreen. It will resonate with anyone who has ever buried a loved one and struggled to straighten out the myriad emotions—grief, anger, helplessness.
Boy-band-singer-turned-actor Motoki delivers a terrific performance as Daigo, while Yamazaki brings humor and wisdom to the role of Daigo's boss. An encoffination ritual is tremendously moving and beautiful. Like during a tea ceremony, every move by a encoffiner possesses impeccable precision, soothing gentleness, and ultimate respect.
Director Takita, deftly juxtaposes high emotion with subtle comedy, and Departures suggests he could take a little off from each end. One scene builds to a shockingly unfunny gag: Daigo works on what he thinks is a beautiful young girl and then, under the sheet, bumps up against “her” male organ. Takita takes a sharp turn into anticlimax, as the disapproving father finally accepts his son/daughter and weeps. It’s only a matter of time before Mika watches him work with tears in her eyes and understands the nobility of this postmortem service as a form of “art.” Having created a cinematic masterpiece that is both funny and sad and all the emotions in between, Departures touches the heart as it depicts the slow process through which Daigo comes to terms with his destiny and the abandonment by his father that he still feels. When it is time for him to reach out to Mika, he recalls that his father once gave him a "stone letter." Presenting his wife with a small rock, he explains: "Long ago, before writing, you'd send someone a stone that suited how you were feeling. From its weight and touch, they'd know how you felt. From a smooth stone, they might get that you were happy. Or from a rough one that you were worried about them." This is just one moment in the film that conveys the deep symbolic value of ritual. A scene of discovery toward the end with tremendous emotional impact comes as a devastating surprise, a poetic adherence.
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and numerous awards around the world, Departures is a deeply moving and sentimental film.There are films that have exquisite cinematography or are examples of great storytelling or blend visual and soundtrack to perfection or draw us to consider spiritual aspects. Every so often, a film comes along that is the whole package—that accomplishes everything that transforms a visual storytelling into a true work of art. Departures is such a film. It is a beautiful film at each level—visual, aural, emotional, spiritual, plot. As a whole, it stands as a magnificent example of what film can be.
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