my review of Japanese film Departures

From the process of dying to the meaning of life, I’ve been reading quite a bit about death in the past months ever since my father has taken critically ill.

So on a quite Sunday night, I watched Departures, a film dealing with the grave subject of death, which made me laugh and cry and think. Made in 2008, it is a story about a young Japanese ritual mortician Daigo starring Masahiro Motoki.

After losing his job as a cello player, he returns from Tokyo to his hometown in a small county and lives in the house left to him by his deceased mother. Since he doesn’t have practical skills, he has difficulties in finding employment, until he stumbles across this unusual job but highly paid. He takes it up but keeps his job description vague to his loving wife Mika. As in China, anything to do with death is regarded as inauspicious in Japan.

After some set-backs, Daigo slowly finds fulfillment in the job looked down upon by people in the community as he learns the importance to present the dead beautifully so that the family can preserve a fond memory and to give the dead a dignified farewell to the world. He also learns greater perspective on life from confronting death at such close quarter.

The film has a great gripping opening. For the first time, Daigo’s master allows him to carry the task on his own. The deceased looks like a young beautiful woman, apparently committed suicide. As he cleans the body under a sheet, in front of the deceased family, he suddenly stops as he comes to the lower part of the body, a surprised look on his face. ‘He got that,” Daigo whispers to his master. The master then takes over. After the cleaning, he asks the family: “Shall I make this person up as a male or female?” At this point, you probably want to laugh and then become sad: obviously this young person’s confused sexual identity and the conflicts with his family have led to the suicide.

Departure is peppered with such unexpected humour. It eases the heaviness of the subject.

All actors did a great job in acting and all characters are all interesting in their own ways. At first, I thought the secretary at the company is just a minor but necessary role. In the end, it is her who persuades Daigo to go to see his father when he dies. The father has run away with a waitress when Daigo was six, an experience that has embitters Daigo for life. The secretary then discloses her remorse for having run away with her lover and deserting her young child.

In the good tradition of some Japanese classics such as Tokyo Story, Departures is beautifully-told story with a slow pace which allows the audience soaks in the atmosphere. I also love the rhythm of the film. After heavy funeral scenes, the audience is rewarded with beautiful shots of Japanese countryside, pink cherry blossoms, goose in green field. Scenes of life, of vitality.

Watching those scenes, I remembered a story a Latin American friend told me. She looked after her mother for three years. The moment her mother passed away, she, well into her middle ages, made passionate love with her husband. She was looking for assurance of life.

Now back on Departures, I understand that the idea came from the lead actor Motoki, who was inspired to make a film on this subject after witnessing a funeral ritual in Varanasi, India. In Japan, he then discovered a memoir Coffinman. This film is loosely based on the book.

Departures is a very Japanese film, which reflects Japanese people’s emphasis on ritual and their sense of beauty. But the theme is universal. People anywhere in the world can relate to it. It won the grand prize in Montreal World Film Festival in August 2008, which paved way for its domestic success.

My criticism is only mild. I am not sure a well-educated musician such as Daigo would accept a lowly job so easily without trying harder to look for something else. And it is slightly predictable: we all know that he is going to love his job.

The climax moved me so much that I cried my eyes out. When Daigo works on his father’s corpse, he finds in his father’s clutched hand a little ‘letter stone’, a symbol of love. As a child, his father gives him one just like this. Daigo finally forgives his not so perfect father – blood is thicker than water after all. It stroke a cord with me.

I can’t recommend the film any higher.

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