Departures

2009-11-09 10:00
 
Departures

What it's about:

Cellist Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) moves from Tokyo to his hometown after his orchestra disbands. Desperate for work, he is emplyed by NK Agency as an 'encoffiner' (Nokanshi), employed by undertakers to prepare the deceased before they are placed in their coffins. Ashamed of this lowly profession, he keeps the truth of his new job from his wife, while learning the intricacies and responsibilities of the trade from his ageing boss.

What we thought:

Death comes for us all, but it's the life that came before and what we leave behind that matters most – and this dictum is no more true than in this moving, achingly beautiful Japanese movie that walked away as the surprising winner of the Best Foreign Language Film awards at the Oscars earlier this year. Now that the film finally makes its way to South African cinemas, it's easy to see why the Academy voters were won over by this heartfelt tale.

If your experience of Japanese film culture only stretches as far as the odd bit of anime, or if you tend to lump all Asian cinema into one big pot, then Departures will prove to be a subtle surprise. Telling a universal story about life, death and all the complications in between may sound overwhelming and ambitious, but it’s the simplicity of the direction, the charm of the performances, and the gravity of the story that connects. The best scenes of the movie are when we see Daigo and his employer performing the encoffining ritual itself – essentially a cleansing and draping ceremony performed before the deceased are placed in their coffins for the wake, and eventually, cremation.

Watching them perform their specialised task is to be hypnotised. Clean, precise and tranquil, and above all, respectful, it requires patience and skill as each procedure is undertaken in full view of mourners, without exposing the deceased's bare skin, except for the hands, feet and face. Each step is taken with such care, it often brings mourners to the brink as they reflect and deal with the weird mixture of joy and sorrow inherent in the act of saying goodbye to a loved one for good.

As Daigo narrates his story of self-discovery with a weariness belying his youth, we learn about his difficult childhood, growing up without the father who abandoned him, who gave him the gift of music before breaking his heart. When the opportunity arises for him to find closure, the movie shows itself to be so full of love, you'll find yourself catching your breath just taking it all in. Like the classic TV series Six Feet Under, which revolved around a family-run funeral home, Departures is further evidence that some of the most life-affirming art is concerned with death.

Daigo is also gifted with Mika (played by Ryoko Hirosue), his impossibly adorable and devoted wife who abandons her web design job in Tokyo to help her husband achieve clarity. Perhaps it is a Japanese custom for women to happily accede to their husband's wishes - the movie doesn’t get into the minutiae of traditional gender roles - but a western audience might find her actions and unflappable spirit a bit grating. What the film does explore is the taboo subject of death. Society frowns upon the business side of death, yet the dignity of the service the encoffiners supply to grieving families negates all pre-conceptions and brings the reality of the often mysterious, unspoken rituals surrounding death closer to home, quite literally.

Departures is a beautifully and sensitively shot movie that will have wide appeal. It is also tailor-made to tug at the heartstrings, so be prepared to shed a tear or two. A must-watch.


Love, death and the meaning of life come to stunning fruition in this Japanese Oscar-winning film.

Alan 2009/11/08 7:45 PM
Achingly beautiful, etc,etc. It reminds me of a review about a film that included necrophilia - 'but it was done tastefully'. Excuse me while I puke.
JK 2009/11/09 10:07 AM
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Oh Alan you sad, sad creature. Loved the movie. Very sad and moving.
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