Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) was—was—a cellist for a symphony orchestra. One day, after a performance to a mostly-empty concert hall, his boss fumblingly tells everyone “The orchestra is dissolved.” Not You’re fired, which would at least have some ring of honesty to it, but dissolved. So much for years of practice and discipline which started when he was a young boy. But life’s like that, and what matters is not that you fall but how you pick yourself back up again.
He has a plan, sort of. He and his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue, Collage of Our Life) will move back to his childhood village at the seaside, and live rent-free in the house (actually, a converted coffeeshop) that his departed mother and estranged father left for them. His search for work turns up an ad for “assisting departures” with a company named “NK Agency”. It’s not a travel firm, though: NK is an abbreviation for nokan—“encoffining”, the art and ritual of dressing the dead for being placed into their coffin before burial or cremation. The boss of NK Agency, crusty Mr. Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), is annoyed at the typo in the ad: “It’s not departures, it’s departed,” he snarls. But he takes one look at Kobayashi, senses someone who just needs something good in his life right now, and hires him on the spot.
Departures takes this unlikely, potentially tasteless material—who wants to see a movie about guys who dress dead people?—and turns it into a film that rightfully won an Oscar. Like most stories nominally about death or dying, it’s more about the living—but it’s also about death in a way that inspires more amused reflection and cheer than gloom. It’s a funny, tender movie, and it tips its hand right from the start: Kobayashi, a reasonably seasoned pro in this first scene, preparing a body for encoffinment and discovering it’s not a woman after all. Oops. (He and Sasaki deal with this by showing as much unruffled good taste as they can muster, which also gets big laughs.)
The whole process of encoffining is shown in great detail, much as it should be. Describing it in a few words makes it sound morbid: the dead body is made up, washed, orifices packed with gauze, then slid into a set of clothes. But the way it’s filmed—and especially acted, by both Motoki and Yamazaki—it unfolds in the same manner as a priest performing the Sacrament. The whole manner in which the clothes are put on the body, for instance: it’s done in stages, with the body cloaked underneath a sheet. I was reminded of that parlor trick where people pull off their shirts without first removing their jacket—but here, it’s not a gimmick, but rather to provide the bereaved with a sense of dignity about the departed. At the end they see not a corpse but the person they loved, and they can say goodbye in the right way at last.
Kobayashi knows none of this going in, though. He’s never handled a dead body in his life. Never even seen one, in fact, which puts him right in line with many of the rest of us. But he sits with Mr. Sasaki, watches him work, absorbs his patience and gentleness, follows his lead. He’s a fast learner. More importantly, he has something vitally important for this job—a sense of empathy for the departed, and more importantly for the bereaved. At one point he’s fitting the body of an old woman with traditional toe socks, only to have her granddaughter offer him a set of girl’s knee-highs (“She always liked these!”). He might not have been the right man for this job when he walked in the door, but he’s become the right man—and a better one overall, someone more aware of what really matters in life. After you’ve stared death in the face, most of life’s other problems aren’t too troubling anymore.
There are more conventional plot details, but they add to the movie rather than inhibit it. He keeps his work a secret from his wife, fearing her disapproval, and sure enough she rejects him when she finds out. But in time she returns—not just because she’s pregnant with his baby, but because she senses being with him while he changes will change her, too, for the better. Another subplot involves a local woman, the lady who runs the bathhouse, and how the locals deal with her death (and how Kobayashi is of help to them). And then there’s the unresolved business between Kobayashi and his father, which concludes the movie in exactly the right way.
Most movies are the product of a director’s ambition, but Departures was actually a long-time dream project for actor Motoki, rather than director Yojiro Takita. Motoki spent decades trying to find financing for the story (an adaptation of Shinmon Aoki’s novel), but eventually Takita stepped in and helped make it happen. The whole project radiates a deep and abiding affection for its material, from Jo Hisaishi’s moving score to the simple but striking visuals—e.g., the scene where Kobayashi plays his cello in the countryside.
What struck me, most unexpectedly, is how the movie is also a quiet plea in favor of a job as a way of life. A trade, not just something you’re paid to do and then mention in a couple of lines on your résumé later on. Something where you inherit the technique involved directly from your supervisor, and where you are not so much continuing a line of business as you are entrusted with the preservation of a dying art. Japan is rife with this sort of thing: geisha and pearl divers, just to name two such professions, are dwindling in numbers and not being replaced. Not enough people are compelled to continue their trade. It’s not hard to imagine a time when the likes of such things will only be kept alive by preservation societies along the lines of the SCA. Only through the living do the dead remain with us, something this movie argues for in more ways than one.
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