Day after day all I see are dead people. And so the dead appear to me as serene, even beautiful. By contrast, the despicableness of the living began to irk me – the living, who, out of their fear of death, peer into the faces of the dead with fear and trepidation in their eyes. As they watch me washing the deceased, I can sense their lines of sight mixed with feelings of alarm, fear, sadness, affection, and anger piercing me from behind.
Though the faces of the dead engross me, in the course of being in contact with the dead on a daily basis, I began to notice that the faces of the dead were invariably gentle ones. During their lives I don’t know what right or wrong they might have done, but it seems to have no bearing on them now. It doesn’t matter whether their beliefs were thick or thin, whether they belonged to this denomination or that, whether they were interested in religion or not. Nothing they have done goes to making the dead wear such gentle faces.
– Shinmon Aoki, “Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician,” the basis for “Departures”
At this year’s Academy Awards—an event at which every result seems more and more to be preordained far in advance—there was a very rare occurrence: a genuine surprise. That would be “Departures,” the latest film from veteran Japanese director Yojiro Takita. Winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film shocked all observers (including the filmmakers themselves) and threw a monkey wrench in Oscar pools across the nation. Such a turn of events would have been the last one would have expected for a director who got his start in the “pink film” (Japanese soft-core sex film) industry, turning out films with such titles as “Groper Train.” Since then, Takita moved into mainstream features, becoming a versatile and eclectic filmmaker working in many different genres, having box office success with “Onmyoji (The Ying-Yang Master)” (2001) and “When the Last Sword is Drawn” (2004).
As baffling as the victory of “Departures” at the Oscars over much more highly touted films seemed for many, it’s not hard to see why the upset happened. The film is as straightforward and old-fashioned as it gets. In many ways, it is a throwback to older films released by famed Shochiku Studios, who released the film in Japan.
“Departures” centers on Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), a cellist whose orchestra has been dissolved due to bankruptcy. Now forced to give up on his dream of being a world-famous musician, he moves from Tokyo back to his hometown, his loving wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) in tow. Answering a deceptive newspaper ad, Daigo becomes an “encoffiner” (or “nokanshi” in Japanese), one who performs the ritualistic practice of washing, dressing, and placing the deceased in coffins for cremation, all done in the presence of the bereaved. Daigo gets over his initial squeamishness to become quite adept at his new profession, all under the watchful eye of his boss, Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki). However, he must suffer the prejudice of others who find his profession shameful, unfortunately including his wife. Also, Daigo’s own attitudes about death and closure are challenged when he must perform these duties on a long-lost relative.
“Departures” has been tagged by a number of commentators with that dreaded adjective “sentimental,” which these days has become an epithet, a mark of shame. And indeed, there is much about this film that is not very fashionable, from its deliberate pace to its gentle comedy and unabashedly tear-jerking scenes. Sentimental it may be, but so what? There is nothing wrong with sentiment if it feels truly earned and not crudely manipulative, a feat that “Departures” succeeds at swimmingly. Viewers (and critics) willing to drop their cynicism will find themselves reflecting on the losses of their own loved ones, and what it means to confront death, much as I did. The result is a moving, powerful experience. The repeated depictions of the careful and respectful honoring of the deceased’s passage to the afterlife gain resonance with each successive scene. The film is not all tears and somber atmosphere, however; there is much room for humor in this scenario. One great example occurs in the film’s very first scene, in which Daigo, while preparing the body of a deceased young woman, finds that she is not all she appears to be.
Takita, much like his protagonist, is also a consummate professional. His unadorned, un-flashy style is always at the service of his narrative and the wonderful performances across the board, particularly Motoki, the driving force behind this film. This project originated with Motoki, who was greatly moved and inspired by the book “Coffinman,” the memoir by Shinmon Aoki, a nokanshi who set down his reminiscences of a life in this profession. “Departures” is not a direct adaptation of the book; Aoki’s book has a far more contemplative and philosophical tone, with frequent digressions on Buddhism and literature that serve to inform Aoki’s reflections on his life experiences. (“Coffinman” is a beautiful work in its own right, and well worth seeking out.)
“Departures” is buoyed by its excellent cast, who are all given ample opportunities to shine. Motoki deftly handles the myriad changes his character experiences, and has obviously put great care into his preparation of the encoffining ritual, as well as playing the cello (Motoki played the instrument live on set), which beautifully deepens his portrayal. Yamazaki (“Tampopo”) brings a wonderful deadpan humor to his role as Daigo’s boss. Kimiko Yo (“Café Lumiere”) is also quirkily funny as the funeral company secretary, and Ryoko Hirosue (“Wasabi”) is quite affecting as Daigo’s wife, a role that becomes much more than the standard long-suffering wife portrayal that it initially appears to be.