Monday, November 7, 2011

Modern Film Classic: “Departures (Okuribito)”

They say you can’t go home again.

In Yojiro Takita’s 2008 film Departures, Daigo Kobayashi has finally realized his dream of becoming a cellist with a major orchestra in Tokyo. The orchestra disbands, and Daigo is in debt by 18,000,000 Yen on the top-of-the-line instrument he purchased when he has finally achieved his goal. Heartbroken and sobered by the limits of his own talent, his wife suggests that they return to his hometown, to live in the childhood home his mother left to him. He grew up in that house, you see, which was a coffee shop his father ran, until he ran off with the waitress and abandoned the family. Daigo’s mother raised him alone and ran the home as a pub. Daigo and his wife, when they settle in, eat at the kitchen bar where his mother once served customers.

He applies to a company that advertises a high-paying job with flexible hours in the “departures” industry. Thinking that the employer is a travel company, he is shocked to find out that a misprint in the ad inadvertently hid the fact that they are in the funeral industry, specializing in “the departed” (oops). The job is to perform the pre-burial ceremony at funerals, which is done with great ceremony and dignity in Japan. Daigo hides his profession from his wife for as long as he can, all the while becoming a skilled mortician, and slowly realizing that the issues he faced when his father abandoned his family long ago are still there, surfacing slowly but surely.

To understand the film’s subtext, it helps to understand that death in Japan is still a taboo subject, not one openly discussed and always hidden beneath the surface. This, despite the fact that funerals are done with great dignity and a sense of theatricality usually reserved for the stage. The fact that the film opens in media res with Daigo washing a female body during a funeral, only for him to discover that the girl is really a transgendered male, further heightens the film’s taboo subject matter. Takita frames the shot, and in fact every funeral, with close-ups and with a decorum that lends respect to each dearly departed.

The funerals in Departures show a variation on the grieving process, at least in Japanese culture. The ceremonies are accompanied by mourners but as Daigo becomes better at his job, he sees how his clients regard their dearly departed. It’s telling that at the end of their lives, descendants not only bid farewell, but they say to those who came before them, “thank you for everything. We’ll see you again soon.” The departure is an opportunity to show true gratitude for all of the hard work and sacrifice of a life’s work, and to thank them simply for being there. That is how one leaves with dignity and grace.

This is not to say that this film is a gloomy affair. Like its American counterpart Six Feet Under, Departures is filled with black humour and a great deal of empathy. We meet the residents of this little town, who still hold grudges and who bicker, laugh and eat together. We meet the owner and manager of the funeral home, who understand that they deal in death and without it, they would not themselves survive. “It’s the last purchase you’ll ever make, and someone else does it for you”, says Daigo’s boss. Some of these characters will and have experienced great loss, or inflicted great loss upon someone else in their lives. In the end, all will find peace.

Takito, left, accepting the Best Foreign Language Film
Oscar, with his cast
Departures was the surprise winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 2008 Academy Awards, upsetting preemptive favourites Waltz with Bashir, The Class and The Baader-Meinhof Complex. Its victory was the first-ever competitive win in the category for a Japanese film (all of that country’s previous winners were juried prizes) and promptly led to a sudden distribution deal that gave this film, a blockbuster in Japan but unrecognized here, an art-house audience. It boasts uniformly excellent performances and a gently mournful score by Joe Hisaishi, better known as Miyazaki’s favourite composer and creator of the music for My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away. It’s a film about the departed, about departing the life one’s led, and arriving somewhere completely unexpected. Unlike most contemporary Hollywood drama, the understated but assured direction by Takita ensures that it earns its tears honestly.

See this film with someone who means a lot to you. When you part after the film, thank them, and tell them that you’ll see them again soon.