Departures (2008): A Masterpiece About Healing and What We Learn From the Dead

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This is my second time seeing “Departures” and I must say, it is just as amazing the second time around. Back when I was an undergrad in College I was part of a Japanese Program where we studied Japanese media, history, language and culture. One of the films that we had got to study was this film and back when I saw it it quickly became a favorite film.

The reasons it is a favorite are numerous and I’ll go into detail in the assessment but for the major things it gets right is the soundtrack, the cinematography, the complex characters and the theme. It’s truly a masterpiece that pulls you in.

The film was directed by Yōjirō Takita, written by Kundo Kayama and produced by Toshiaki Nakazawa.

The story is about Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) who loses his job as a cellist when the orchestra he is a part of dissolves and decides to move back to his hometown of Yamagata with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). When he follows up from an add in the paper he finds himself in a job in which he prepares the dead for cremation and their funerals. Resistant at first he eventually comes around but finds that the job has alienated him from those around him and he must deal with his own hurt as his preparing the bodies of the dead has helped families deal with the loss of their loved ones.

The Pros: The Cinematography – Takeshi Hamada does a wonderful job with the cinematography on this film. Whether it’s the opening shot of a car driving through the snow filled fog, the burials and how they capture the pain and relationship the living have to the deceased or the alienation that Mika and Daigo at times feel from the world around them and each other. There is nothing but beautifully shot scenes in this film.

The Soundtrack – Joe Hisaishi was the perfect composer for this film. The use of strings and piano capture the themes of memories and loss that every character feels in this film and the theme song “Okuribito” is now a favorite.

The Characters – There aren’t any 2 Dimensional characters in this film. Everyone has motivations for doing what they do and no one is really a bad person. We see how complicated character relationships are through the choices characters make and also the regret the living feel based on how they treated the now deceased.

Yuriko – Yuriko is the secretary of the encoffining business and has a rich story. She is comfortable with working with the dead and has a lot of respect for the Boss as he hired her after the owner of the bar she worked for died. Her story is also tragic too as she abandoned her child for a man who wasn’t any good and now regrets it but fears going back to see her son, ashamed of how he might see her. For this reason she asks Daigo to see his father one last time when she learns his father died alone as she fears the same thing as well, even with the Boss and Daigo as her adopted family. Kimiko Yo gives a lot of depth to this role and her character might be my favorite out of all of them.

The Boss – The boss has another name but I’m going to refer as the Boss. Tsutomo Yamazaki does a great job in this role as the eccentric encoffiner. He lost his wife and prepared her body for cremation which got him into the business in the first place. He has a very honest approach to death and accepts that everyone dies at some point. This doesn’t stop him from being extremely respectful to everyone around him and having a certain interpersonal awareness contrasted with how unaware he can sometimes be. His final scene is giving Daigo the car so that he and Mika can go visit Daigo’s father’s body to see him for the last time. He’s very much the father Daigo never had.

Mika – Ryoko Hirosue plays a rich character who has an astonishing ability to grow and adapt. She leaves Tokyo to return to Daigo’s hometown even though she’s always wanted to travel and she eventually accepts Daigo’s job once she sees how much respect is given to the dead and how important his role is in helping families heal and move on. She also stands up for herself too and voices how difficult the move was and tries to change Daigo’s mind about his job twice before she finally sees what is it is like. It is also her action that makes Daigo realize he should see his father. She is one of the most mature characters in the film and Hirosue owns the role.

Daigo – Daigo holds a lot of pain inside of himself but is also very much a child still. We see this in his moments of joy with Mika and his full embracing of his job as an encoffiner when he finds he is good at it and what he is able to give the families in honoring those who have passed. His arc is forgiving his father and moving on from the world he left behind when the orchestra was dissolved. He still holds onto his music though and uses it to express his melancholy memories and what he’s shared. In the end preparing his father for cremation and remembering his face allows him to forgive his father for abandoning him and his mother. Masahiro Motoki is wonderful in this role.

The Departures – Every departure is powerful, from the first moment where he has to help move the body of an old lady who has been rotting, to every suicide victim he cares for, every child he buries and every old person leading up to his father. Each reveals an aspect of humanity from our cruelty to our love, which is why I’m giving the powerful departures their own section since they made that much of an impression on me and were fantastically done scenes.

The Transgender Women – One of the departures is of a transgender woman who cared herself because her family never accepted her becoming a woman. It’s a powerful scene and we see the Boss’s and Daigo’s respect for her that carries over to the family when they give her woman’s makeup and finally honor the person she was the entire time. It is this that makes the father realize just how horrible he was and get him to the point of accepting that he always loved his son and regrets his actions.

The Bath House – The bath house is a place that Daigo goes to and is friends with the couple who owns it and their son who went to school with him. When the mother dies it makes Mika realize how important the uncoffiner job is and that Daigo is doing important work for healing and where the son finally accepts that his mother is dead and how he never respected her wishes in regards to the bath house and her husband who believes he’ll see her again and we see that he is the gatekeeper at the crematorium. The scenes with him are the most powerful as he recounts their last days where they celebrated their anniversary with a party and how she had him heat the bath house before she passed which gave him time to deal with the loss when he returned.

Daigo’s Father – Daigo’s father died alone and it is realizing the sad life that his father lead that motivates Daigo to not be that. He forgives his father and the stone he gave to his wife when he shared the stone his father shared they press to their son as a reminder that their son will not be alone as Daigo was. It is a powerful scene and completes Daigo’s arc as a character showing he no longer holds the resentment and hate for his father.

The Themes – Everyone dies, but that doesn’t stop us from living or change how their lives shaped us and can shape us. We see this in the Boss reminding Daigo to eat since it is the only way he will keep on living and we see how the lives touched the living and changed the living in every scene of departure. Whether it was the City Council Member mourning his mother or the Father truly accepting the loss of his Transgender daughter. All of them feel the loss and realize how they hurt the person through their actions and how important that person was to their life, changing them in the process.

The Message – The message is that the dead can’t do anything to hurt you and holding onto resentment only hurts you. This message of forgiveness is throughout the entire film and comes to a final conclusion when Daigo gives his father’s body respect and from it is finally able to remember his one happy memory he shared with his father and realizes he misses the life they never got to share…and in this knows healing.

The Cons: Pacing – At times the film is a bit too slow, this helps if you have other things to do but it makes watching the film all at once difficult at times. It is a meditative film so if you go in expecting it to feel long, you will be fine. I hadn’t seen it for years so I’d forgotten how long it felt inbetween the moments of high drama and character and for this reason it was a con for me.

This film is a classic and highly deserves all the awards it has one. It reveals what death teaches us about ourselves and that the dead are always with us and from that we can heal and grow or we can remain in denial over what we went through with those people when they were alive with us. I really love how at peace this film is with death and that it doesn’t have one dimensional characters. All of them are so richly written and the music, cinematography and amazing acting make this a film that is truly unforgettable and one of the best I have ever seen.

We’ve all dealt with death and lost people who are close to us or touched us in some way. For me seeing this film reminded me again of all the friends and family I’ve lost and how those individuals touched my life and helped me grow in different ways. I carry them in my memory and heart each day I live is another day to remember them and how much they meant to me and to so many others. The dead are a part of us and we carry them with us in how we live our lives.

Final Score: 9.7 / 10

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