For months I’ve had a Japanese movie called “Departures” sitting in my Netflix Instant Queue. What has been my hesitance in watching this film? I suppose the running time (2h 10m) is a part of what had me approach the film carefully, which is odd considering most of my favorite movies are longer than two hours; but I suppose my real hesitance was in what the film was about. Here’s what Netflix says:
“Young cellist Daigo has an epiphany in which he realizes he’s been heading down the wrong career path. Retreating to his hometown, he trains for a new professional role as a “nakanshi*” one who prepares the dead for burial.”
The thought of two hours of a mortician caused me to look at the film suspiciously and approach it carefully.
I love Japanese cinema, whether it be older (Seven Samurai, Harakiri, Ugetsu Monogatari), newer (Seance, Who’s Camus Anyway?, Running on Empty), or even animated (Spirited Away, Paprika), the land of the rising sun has managed to produce many of my favorite films; so today I finally sat down and watched this film.
I wish I had not waited so long! This film is simply marvelous.
Daigo’s (pronounced sort of like die-go) lives with his wife in one of the large metropolitan areas in Japan (Tokyo, as I recall) and plays cello for one of the city’s small orchestras. The opening segment of the film shows the orchestra playing for a less than packed house, and then once the show is over the orchestra’s owner announces that he is dissolving the group, leaving Daigo out of a job. Daigo and his wife Mika decide that a change of pace is needed and move to the small town where Daigo grew up.
When Daigo’s mother passed away she left them a house which has been everything from a coffee shop to a bar and even has what appears to be a stage for musicians. We get the sense that Daigo was not close with his mother, and we know outright that he has not seen his father since he was six; Daigo cannot even remember what his father looks like.
After having lived in the small house for a few days Daigo finds an advertisement in the paper from a company dealing in “departures”. Daigo shows up and after only briefly speaking with the boss, Ikuei, is given the job and told that he will be making quite a large sum of money.
“What does the job involve?” “Well, at first being my assistant.” “Specifically.” “Specifically? Casketing.” “The ad said departures, so I thought it meant a travel agency.” “Oh, that’s a misprint. It’s not departures, it’s the departed.”
When Daigo’s wife asks him what the job is his response is: “Ceremonies.” “Oh, like weddings? You could play your cello for them!”
The subject matter is fairly dark (although never graphic), but is handled with a just enough humor and class that we are never put off or disturbed. On the surface this is a film about death, but ultimately it is about Daigo letting go of the things that are holding him back in his life. By performing these ceremonies Daigo is able to help grieving families let go of their traumas and heartache, and by doing this he is able to eventually let go of his baggage.
On the surface the film likely sounds as if it has a rather cliche character arc (and, to a certain extent I suppose it does), but what happens in the movie isn’t all that important, what is important is how it happens. The old adage of “it’s not what it’s about, it’s how it’s about it” rings true in this film. The characters all feel like living breathing people, they think individually of one another, they move through their lives, and we end up liking them. This is all driven by the central performances of Masahiro Motoki (Daigo) and Ryoko Hirosue (Mika) and the relationship they allow their characters to form with one another.
Over all “Departures” is a movie that I just like. It’s charming and fun to watch, even though it does touch on some very powerful and sad moments. Quite remarkable. As I said before, I wish that I hadn’t kept putting this movie off as it’s quite marvelous. If you have Netflix Instant and enjoy methodically paced foreign films then you should check this one out. It’s practically silly how much I would recommend watching this movie. Don’t make the same mistake I did! In years to come “Departures” might become one of my favorite movies, but only time will tell.
Here is the film’s trailer on YouTube, and it is only after watching this I learn the film won the Best Foreign Film award at the 2008 Academy Awards, although I can’t say I’m surprised.
*it seems that the actual word is “noukan” which seems to mean something like “to put away/into a coffin”