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Director: Yojiro Takita

Cast: Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Kimiko Yo, Masahiro Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue, Tsutomu Yamazaki

I can think of two films which have had a profound effect on my thinking about , or at least my appreciation of death. Both are Japanese. The first is Akira Kurosawa’s Ikuru (1952), the beautifully told tale of, Kanji Watanabe,  an aging bureaucrat played by  Takashi Shimura, who learns that he has cancer and must take some action to make his life meaningful. Being an aging bureaucrat myself, I have to agree with Roger Ebert that, “… the older I get, the less Watanabe seems like a pathetic old man, and the more he seems like every one of us."  The second film is Yojiro Takita’s Departures (2008), a stylistic portrayal of the Japanese practice of “encoffining”  the deceased’s body in his or her house in front of the family.

Departures is a visual treat, in the sense of watching the ceremonial pace of the encoffining procedure, which becomes mesmerizing, and almost profound, especially as the family’s emotions, which are aroused during the ceremony, move from anger, fear and grief to acceptance and inevitably, to appreciation and thanks directed toward the person they have lost.

The story told within the movie is of a young couple, the male of which loses his job as a cellist in a symphony orchestra because the orchestra dissolves, and he and his young wife move back to his town of origin in the house of his deceased mother.  The young man, Daigo, played by Masahiro Motoki, accepts a job “assisting departures,” for an “NK agency,” which he and his wife assume might be a travel agency, but is, in fact a service that performs enconffining.  Daigo is hired by the older man who runs the agency but is unable to tell his wife, Mika, played by Ryoko Hirosue, what he does, and instead says he works on "ceremonial occasions,” which she assumes means weddings.

The couple settles into their life in the small town, with Daigo renewing his old acquaintances and thinking about his mother and the father who left him when he was a small child and toward whom he harbors a great deal of anger.  As we follow him learning his new job, we see him move from being horrified at the presence of the dead people he must encoffin, which consists of ritually cleaning and dressing the body and then placing it in the coffin, to feeling reverence for both the deceased and the ritual itself. He learns that the old man who is his teacher, only took up the profession when his own wife died and he saw the profound effect the care for the dead person  had upon him.

Daigo’s wife, Mika finally discovers what he does for a living and demands he quit and get a “decent job.” But Daigo is hooked on the worth and dignity of what he does and refuses to quit. His wife leaves. Soon after, his closest friend, the son of a woman who has known  Daigo all of his life and runs a local bathhouse, severs his relationship with Daigo because of his refual to get a “proper job.”

Mika finds she is pregnant and returns to Daigo, but she is still against his profession. When the old woman who runs the bathhouse dies and Daigo is the one who carries out the encoffining, his wife and his best friend attend and both are swayed by the beauty and dignity of what Daigo does and change their minds and accept it.

Daigo receives a message that his father, whom he has not seen since he was a very small child, has died. Daigo wants nothing to do with his father, but Mika and Daigo’s boss convince him to travel to where the body is and see his father one last time and perform the encoffining. Daigo and Mika go together and  he carries out the ritual, awakening memories of his father when he does so and culminating in him finding , clasped in his father’s hand, a small stone, which was a “stone letter” he gave his father when he was a child.

Departures is less personally relevant for someone such as myself than Ikuru, but more visually appealing and the movie’s pace and its repetition of the encoffining ritual over and over produces almost a spiritual, pariticipatory feeling in anyone who watches it.

The film won numerous awards, including an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film in 2009 and several international Best Actor awards for Masahiro Motoki, as well as many Japanese Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Screenplay, etc. awards.

 Reviewed by Casey Dorman

Reader Comments (2)

This movie is superb. My 16-year-old liked as much as I. For anyone who loved the series Six Feet Under, this is a must see.

May 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Saslow
October 29, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlederm

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