Departures / 入殮師

A delicate story about life, death and beyond

By Sanchez Wang

“DEPARTURES”, or “Okuribito” as in Japanese, tells the story of a Japanese “noukan”, a mortician who cleans up dead bodies and dresses them up before sending them on their final journeys.

16104929Although death has always been a fascinated element in movies, it is not an easy task to handle it all over the screenplay. But with great efforts, the story is told in a clean and beautiful way to guarantee its success as a tear-jerker as well as a comedy. An unexpected win as the best foreign language movie in the 81st Oscars, along with many other awards, offers the movie its deserved credit.

Daigo Kobayashi(小林 大悟) never thinks of a day he will be dealing with corpses, not before he loses his job as a cellist in the metropolis and returns to his little hometown. He soon finds himself deep into his new job, though it is despised by many, including his wife.

One would find the starting half hour of the movie amusing in many ways, before it evolves into a story that touches deep nerves. Kobayashi, who lost his father in his early childhood, and never sees a single dead body before becoming a mortician, has to overcome his fragilities and fears to keep his life going back to the right track.

Actor Masahiro Motoki(本木 雅弘)’s performance as the shy and sensitive Kobayashi is just excellent. Actually, the movie derived from Motoki’s long time wish to play a traditional Japanese mortician. Motoki handles the powerful outbursts and the trivial face expressions with the same level of delicacy, making Kobayashi one of the most vivid and believable character I have seen in recent years.

Kobayashi’s boss and master in the mortician business, Ikuei Sasaki, is played by veteran TV and movie actor Tsutomu Yamazaki(山崎 努). The old mortician guides Kobayashi with his rich life experiences and understanding of death ritual as an art – another convincing performance.

There may be no one who can present the beauty of rituals better than Japanese directors. Funeral scenes repeated again and again in “Departures”, yet they are treated with such delicacy that each time the ritual sends a deeper feeling of spiritual distillation, making people forget how boring those rituals could have been.

The beauty of death has always be a symbol of Japanese culture. But instead of applying the common death templates like wars, machos or lost youths, “Departures” turns the camera to normal Japanese, their simple life, their simple death, their simple departures with their families. Those stories are simple, yet as colorful and unusual from the eyes of a mortician.

Still death is a sensitive topic in East Asian cultures. Director Yojiro Takita said he was not sure if the Japanese mass audience could take it – actually there were doubts, dragging the movie’s box office lower than expected until it won the Oscar nomination.

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Yojiro Takita(瀧田 洋二郎) started his career as a pornography director and made a shift to serious movies in 1986. He was well known in Japan with movies like “Omyoji”, which tells the story of a legendary diviner in ancient Japan.

Like another director Iwai Shunji(岩井 俊二) did in his “Love Letter” (情書 1995) and “April Story” (四月物語 1998), Takita adopted a typical “Japanese” approach in story telling, long and graceful monologues read out by the characters, smooth indoor shots, beautiful and wide sceneries. The delicate scenes and symbolic details are easily appealing to East Asians who share similar culture context. For audience from other part of the world, respects to the dead and family ties still speak the same language. In fact, there seems to be so much deliberation to make the movie understandable in western eyes that its oriental roots are in a way hidden deep, which is again, a common phenomenon in Japanese culture.

Renowned composer Hisaishi Joe took the advantage of Kobayashi’s identity as a musician to create great original music for the movie, a lot of it played out directly by Kobayashi himself in the story. Main theme by cello is tender and graceful. Following the mood of the story, the melody plays blue at the beginning, and grows warmer toward the ending scenes. All you could ever want from it.

I would not continue to spoil the surprises you can get from this movie. “Departure” is filled with amazing conversation pieces, breathtaking contrasts, and scenes that are slow and silent and artistic – just grab a seat and enjoy the essence of Japanese movies, and relearn something about life and death.

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