Departures is the winner of the 2009 Academy Award in the category of the Best Foreign Language Picture. Loosely based on a memoir by Shinmon Aoki titled Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician, it tells the story of Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), an ex-cellist who comes to his home town and finds a very undesirable employment as a nōkanshi, a traditional ritual mortician in Japan. The profession attracts strong societal criticism and prejudice, and soon Kobayashi has to justify his choice not only to his wife and those around him, but also to himself, while finding the courage to finally face the most hated man in his life – his own father. Departures is a wonderful film full of humour and touching moments. This film about one man’s journey of self-discovery and finding forgiveness is also an admirable attempt to challenge and to help alleviate the nonsensical and unfair discrimination faced by people who work in this very difficult and challenging profession in Japan.
“It’s funny how fate works, you never know where you’d end up”, says Daigo Kobayashi in the film. And, he really did end up in one strange place. It is impossible to over-emphasise just how discriminatory the profession of a ritual mortician really is in Japan. This is a person who comes into a very close contact with the dead on a daily basis, and, thus, traditionally, these people are also in the category of “unclean” people in Japan, together with butchers and in historic times – executioners, Japan’s burakumin. There is still a great social stigma attached to the people in these professions (largely because of the culture of “purity”), and Daigo Kobayashi in the film finds out just the extent of this discrimination. In fact, when Kobayashi gets his job as a nōkanshi in the story and takes the call in the middle of the night summoning him up to perform his duty to the dead, we feel he is akin to some drug dealer in the west, so much taboo and secrecy must surround what he is about to perform.
When Kobayashi answers to an ad in a newspaper that seeks a person for a company that specialises in “departures”, he feels he is on the right track to become a successful man in some travel agency because the ad does not ask for any experience and allegedly offers much money. Little does he know on what trials he is about to embark. As Kobayashi is clueless about the world of funeral practices in Japan, especially practices in rural areas, it is fascinating to find out step-by-step this world alongside him, a world filled with surprises and shocks. The film stresses the message that the people who work in the funeral sector are ordinary human beings who deserve respect and gratitude for the work they do. They already have an uneasy job at hand, but also have to deal with the grief and traumas of others. Instead of discrimination and rudeness, these people deserve understanding and respect because they do the best they can (someone has to do it), showing warmth and dedication towards their job. The contrast here is key because Daigo Kobayashi comes into this unenviable job from the background of a cellist, a background of pure beauty and “cleanliness” since he previously handed a very beautiful musical instrument that is capable of producing the most divine sounds. And, Daigo Kobayashi still remains the same person full of that inner beauty, despite the profession he has chosen.
Some scenes in the film are too sentimental and could have easily been cut out, as the film is so long, including the scene where Kobayashi’s co-worker tells him how she got into the funeral sector, as well as some aimless scenes with Kobayashi’s wife. In other respects, the way the film mixes sentimentality, sadness and humour is impressive, and there is indeed much unexpected humour inside! The theme of a wife-husband relationship can be contrasted with the theme of a relationship between a boss and an employee. The boss in Departures is one eccentric and likeable individual who stands for wisdom that can only be gained through maturity, and the wife of Kobayashi is the exact opposite, a person full of superstition whose impulsive decisions lead to the couple’s sorrow too. Finally, the hints on symbolism (“the dying octopus”, “the living fish” in the film), poignant moments and the soundtrack by no other than Joe Hisaishi, the composer of most major Studio Ghibli animations, add to all the other merits of the already good movie.
Departures is not just a well-made film, but also a cinematic vehicle to help break down the social prejudice that many morticians still face in Japan, that also emphasises the message of acceptance, non-discrimination, kindness and compassion. Despite its “too-convenient” story lines, sometimes overly-sentimental scenes and its predictable ending, it remains, nevertheless, a brave and heart-warming film in many respects, offering a completely delightful cinematic experience. 8/10