2008 Oscar winning Japanese film Departures is a deeply moving but sometimes darkly comic look at Japanese funeral ceremonies. Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a cellist, playing with an Orchestra in
until it is shut down due to poor ticket sales. Short of money he is forced to
move back to his remote mountain hometown and live in the house that his mother
left him when she died. Spotting an advert in the paper for ‘assisting
departures’, a job requiring no experience, Daigo goes for an interview. He is immediately
hired but soon finds out that the advert had a typo and the job is in fact to
prepare the dead for cremation. Daigo keeps his new job secret from his wife Mika
(Ryoko Hirosue) for fear that she will disprove and slowly learns the art of
the job from his quiet but dedicated boss Shoei (Tsutomo Yamazaki). Despite
being initially repulsed by the job, Daigo soon learns to respect the delicate
work carried out by himself and his boss but still has to convince his wife and
friend Yamashita (Tetta Sugimoto). Tokyo
Departures is a film that really messed with my emotions. I went from laughing out loud to being close to tears before an emotional but satisfying ending. It is not surprising that the film won so many awards upon its release and continues to be held in such high regard.
One of the first things that struck me about the film is how beautiful the highly ritualised preparation ceremony is. The body is expertly washed and dressed while at all times remaining covered in a dignifying way. The way in which the body is expertly moved is almost like a dance and the ritual is carried out with mathematical precision. Despite being a very solemn affair, the film’s opening scene is also very funny. Taking place two months into the plot, Daigo is seen preparing the body of a young lady for cremation. While cleaning the body with cloths he stops with a jump and surprised expression on his face. Quietly shuffling over towards his boss, Daigo explains that she “has a thing”. Confused, the old man takes over before discovering the young lady’s “thing” himself and carefully asking one of the relatives if he would like the deceased to be made up as a man or a woman. This opening scene sets the tone of the rest of the film by being both sad and darkly funny.
The humour comes to a stop though around two thirds in when an event that although could be seen a mile off, is still upsetting takes place. Having battled for respect from those who know him, this is when Daigo gets the chance to show what his job really means for people and is one of the most moving scenes in the film, only beaten by the finale. A thread throughout the film is that of Daigo’s relationship with his father, or rather lack of. He left when Daigo was very young and this caused a great chasm in his life. I had a feeling that someone in the story was going to turn out to be the father but was proved wrong. A central theme to the film is the family. Daigo’s family is made up by himself and his wife but this is shattered when she is unable to come to terms with his job. Instead, his family becomes those he works with, his boss and the secretary. Another family is that of the bath house lady with whom Daigo becomes friendly. All of these families end up clashing either internally or externally, often with upsetting results. Something that is sometimes difficult to understand for a western viewer is the Japanese taboo of death and the funeral business. Although I didn’t know this was the case before the film, it is made obvious throughout.
One of the highlights of the film is the score. Much of the music is cello lead orchestral music and sounds beautiful. The score was composed by renowned Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi and lead actor Masahiro Motoki also learned to play the cello for the role. My only problem with the score is that the central piece of music, played over and over again bore a striking resemblance to the music over the Visit Scotland advert that has been playing in the UK for about five or six years.
Departures is a beautiful, funny, heartbreaking and fascinating film with over fifteen major awards to its name. The acting is terrific and it looks stunning thanks to some mesmerising cinematography. I highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in Japanese cinema.