“Departures” - Yojiro Takita (2008)

Departures (original title: Okuribito, meaning “One Who Sends Off”; 2008) is a Japanese film directed by Yojiro Takita that has been immensely popular, both inside Japan and abroad [1,2,3].  It swept the Japanese film production awards, and it won the US Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 2008.  Many viewers are brought to tears by the film, and Marc Savlov, of the Austin Chronicle, said the film was “particularly sublime” [1].  Roger Ebert saw the movie three times and listed it among his all-time great movies [3].  But I had a somewhat different take on the film.  The problem, you see, is that Departures is a film about death, and the issues I have are about the degree to which the film authentically engages with that profoundly troubling topic.

The story of the film concerns a young man who, though trained as an orchestral cellist, winds up stumbling into the profession of “casketing” – an assistant to a funeral director who ritually cleans and prepares dead bodies prior to their final placement in a casket.  This can also be referred to as “encoffinment”, and throughout the film we see a number of corpses being processed in this fashion.  As the viewer is informed early on in the film,
 “The rite of encoffinment is to prepare the deceased for a peaceful departure.”
Naturally, this process is for the remaining living, those relatives and loving friends who witness this encoffinment ceremony at the funeral and use it to say their final good-bye to the deceased.  

The story of Departures passes through three main stages.

1.  Finding a New Role
Daigo Kobayashi (played by Masahiro Motoki) is a young cellist for a symphony orchestra.  When his struggling orchestra is shut down, Daigo is suddenly without a job.  He and his loving wife Mika (Ryôko Hirosue) decide to move back to Daigo’s old home town of Yamagata in he north of Japan and into Daigo’s boyhood home that his recently deceased mother has willed to him.  There they at least won’t have to pay rent while Daigo is looking for a job.  Daigo has to sell off the expensive concert cello he had recently purchased on credit, and now in his mid-thirties, he realizes he has to start all over.

Looking through the job ads in the newspaper, he comes across one for an “NK agent” to work on “departures” and with no prior experience required.  Assuming this is a job for a travel agency, Daigo rushes off to the job site, but when he gets there, he is shocked to learn that ‘NK’ is short for ‘nokan’ and means casketing.  Nevertheless, he is coaxed into staying for an interview, and after only a few words are exchanged with the boss, Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), Daigo is hired to start working for him immediately.

2.  Learning the Trade
As Sasaki’s apprentice, Daigo begins watching and learning what is involved in the ritual of encoffinment.  With the mourning relatives looking on intently, the casketer solemnly attends to the corpse, which is fully covered in sheets and shawls, before him.  The casketer reaches under these sheets and carefully and delicately cleanses the corpse’s entire body.  Then he carefully makes up the corpse’s face, shaving it with a razor if the deceased was a man.  Then the corpse is delicately lifted and placed inside an open coffin.  The decorative coffin can cost $1,000-3,000.

All this ceremonial cleansing is a ritual just for the onlooking mourning relatives, because immediately after the funeral, the coffin with its contents will be incinerated.  In Japan, 99.97% of the deceased are cremated [4]. 

After watching Sasaki do this several times, Daigo learns how to perform this ceremony, himself.  And it turns out that his experience as a skilled cellist is a natural fit for the meticulous nature of his new craft.  Although he has to overcome his instinctive revulsion at the sight and smell of decaying dead bodies, he gradually gets used to it.  However, he knows that despite the intrinsic place that casketing has in traditional Japanese death rituals, other people will generally feel the same natural revulsion for what he does that he, himself, felt when he started.  So he hides the nature of his work from his friends and associates.

At home, Daigo even conceals it from his wife, Mika, but he enjoys living in his old home again, and he even starts playing the old cello he used to play as a child.  In fact when he first opens the old cello case, he discovers the old “stone-message” he had received from his dad when he was only a little boy.  We later learn that exchanging stone-messages was an ancient practice that predated the advent of writing.  The stone that you gave to your recipient was one whose shape, size, and texture represented your inner feelings.  On that stone-message exchange with his father long ago, Daigo had also given his own personally chosen stone-message to his father.  However, his childhood memories bring to his mind how much he still hates his father, who deserted his family thirty years ago when Daigo was only six years old.  He tells Mika that he doesn’t care if his father is now alive or dead. 

Nevertheless, as it inevitably had to, the secret of Daigo’s profession eventually does come out, and his friends all snub him.  When Mika finds out about his handling of dead bodies, she he is horrified with revulsion; she leaves him and returns to her parental home.

3.  A Resolution of Sorts
Daigo continues his casketing work alone, and the viewer witnesses more examples of his work.  After several months, Mika returns to her husband and announces she is pregnant with his child.  When she witnesses his careful encoffinment of the just-deceased mother of one of his old friends, she sees how compassionate and dedicated he is to his practice, and she forgives him for pursuing this work.

Circumstances eventually work out that Daigo is informed of the imminent casketing of his father, who has just died.  Daigo and Mika go there, and Daigo reverently takes over the process of encoffinment of his own father.  When Daigo opens the clenched fist of his father, he discovers that stone that he had given to his father as a stone-message thirty years earlier.  Hopefully, this will help reduce the long-held resentment he had felt for his father.  At the close of the film, Daigo symbolically gives that stone as a message to his still unborn child.

Although many viewer are moved by that ending, it is not clear to me what the overall intent of this film is, and I think there were a number of missed opportunities.  As The New York Time’s A. O. Scott remarked [5]:
“It operates, from start to finish, in a zone of emotional safety, touching on strong feelings like grief and loss without really engaging them. . .”
It is true there are some virtues to the production.  Takeshi Hamada’s cinematography, featuring many high- and low-angle shots, has an atmospheric interpersonal quality to it.  And the cello-based music of Joe Hisaishi throughout moodily evokes the delicacy of Daigo’s work.  But I did have problems with some of the acting in the film.  In particular, the acting on the part of the two principal male actors – Masahiro Motoki as Daigo and Tsutomu Yamazaki as Mr. Sasaki – was disappointing.  Although some reviewers seem to have liked their performances, I found the work of these two actors to be flat and superficial.  After all, we’re dealing with death here, but Motoki just perpetually addresses everything with mouth-agape stares, and Yamazaki only offers blank-faced frowns.  We need more subtlety here.  On the other hand, the acting of the two main women, Ryôko Hirosue and Kimiko Yo, is much more emotive and realistic to the dramatic situations.  But beyond the acting, there are two other concerns I have about Departures the lie on the thematic level: the treatments of ritual and death.

With regard to ritual, it is my understanding that ritual has long been an important aspect of Japanese culture.  The Japanese tea ceremony, for example, is not just a nice practice for drinking tea.  Instead, the tea ceremony is a ritualistic instrument for helping to generate a Zen-like mindfulness on the beautiful aspects of everyday being [6].  One is supposed to perform the tea ceremony with total absorption in the existential purity of life [7].  In Departures we are presented with the ritual of stone-messaging, but that seems to be primarily only a game.  The main ritual here is encoffinment in front of the grieving  mourners, and one would think that the film would offer an occasion for exploring the depth and meaning of this ritual.  But the film skirts around this possibility, and it just shows a train of opaque, glum-faced mourners.  Are we just supposed to be left with the notion that the encoffinment ceremony merely offers an opportunity for each mourner to have his or her own personal moments of grief?  This, to me, would be a cop-out, but even this consideration is not made clear.  So examination of the nature of ritual was a serious opportunity lost in this film.

A second issue concerns the theme of death and the evolution of Daigo’s notions on its meaning.  Although this is something that is frequently touched on in the film, it is never really developed well.  The only moment of reflection on this topic is when the local cremator, i.e the person who sets all the coffins ablaze, remarks,
“maybe death is a gateway. . . you go through it and on to the next thing”.
But that and other possible ideas are never considered further.

As for Daigo, after being shown his initiation into the encoffining of corpses, we are sometimes shown sequences depicting  Daigo’s concerns about the deaths of animals.  On one occasion he is shown watching and presumably pondering salmon swimming upstream to spawn and die.  Another time he and Mika are disturbed to discover that an octopus they had purchased for cooking is still alive and wiggling.  And on still another occasion, the sight of a freshly killed chicken on his dinner table moves him to vomit uncontrollably.  Thus the thought that the meat he eats at his dinner table comes from the corpses of sentient beings not so different from the human corpses he is continually placing in coffins must clearly dawn on him. 

So one might expect that Daigo’s reverent practice on human carcasses might lead him to have a feeling that all dead animals once had conscious existences, i.e. we could imagine them to have some sort of souls, like humans.  And this realization would then hopefully engender in him a feeling for universal altruism and lead to a decision to forswear the consumption of meat [8].  But this is not what happens.  Instead he watches his boss Sasaki lustily tearing his teeth into animal flesh when they share a meal together, and Daigo gradually imitates his mentor.  Sasaki seems to think that death is just a normal aspect of the world, and we might as well not dwell on the idea.  So in the end, Daigo just seems to get used to death and killing.  It is as if he simply puts death out of his mind, even though he is constantly dealing with it in an intimate way.  This turning away from the key theme of the film represents another missed opportunity in Departures.

In the end, I get the feeling that rather than this film showing us a caring casketer who reflects and projects his altruistic love to all beings, living or deceased, it instead shows us a self-absorbed practitioner who deals with the dead bodies he has been assigned to treat in the same operational way that he had earlier treated his musical instrument.

  1. Marc Savlov, “Departures”, Austin Chronicle (28 August 2009).   
  2. Roger Ebert, “Departures”, RogerEbert.Com, (27 May  2009).   
  3. Roger Ebert, “Departures”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.Com, (11 December 2011).   
  4. “List of countries by cremation rate”, Wikipedia, (13 December 2019).   
  5. A. O. Scott, “Making a Living Handling Death”, The New York Times, (28 May 2009).   
  6. Okakura Kakuzo, The Book of Tea, Duffield & Company, (1906).
  7. “The Book of Tea”, Wikipedia, (6 December 2019).   
    •  “According to Tomonobu Imamichi, Heidegger's concept of Dasein in Sein und Zeit was inspired – although Heidegger remained silent on this – by Okakura Kakuzo's concept of das-in-der-Welt-sein (being-in-the-worldness) expressed in The Book of Tea to describe Zhuangzi's philosophy, which Imamichi's professor Ito Kichinosuke had offered to Heidegger in 1919, after having followed private lessons with him the year before.”
  8. Matthieu Ricard, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, Little, Brown and Company, (2013; English translation by Charlotte and Sam Gordon, 2015).  

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