Japanese film “Departures”, which was re-released in South Korean theaters around the end of last year, touched me to laughs and tears more than once. When I watched it for the first time not long after it won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in early 2009, I did not expect much from the beginning, but then I soon found myself absorbed in its story and characters a lot more than expected. When I watched it again at the 2010 Ebertfest in next year, I was surprised to see how much it touched hundreds of audiences around me, and, again, I found myself automatically overwhelmed again by those genuinely human moments in the film. When I recently revisited it this afternoon, I was delighted to discover that it is still one of the most moving films about life and death, and I admired again how effortlessly and thoughtfully it shifts itself along the rich spectrum of many different emotions including joy and sadness.
At first, the movie merely seems to be about one unexpected personal struggle in the life of Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), a young cellist who belatedly comes to learn that his orchestra has been disbanded only after what turns out to be their latest public performance. While facing the impending financial difficulty resulted from that, Daigo comes to have more doubts on his music career which has been middling to say the least, and then his ever-supportive wife Mika (Ryōko Hirosue) suggests that they should go back to his hometown in Yamagata for a new start. Although he is initially reluctant, Daigo eventually agrees to his wife’s suggestion, and we soon see them moving into an old bar house belonging to his recently deceased mother.
When Daigo is looking into the advertisement section of a local newspaper for his ongoing job search on one day, he happens to notice an advertisement from some local company looking for someone willing to “assist departures”. Innocently assuming that that local company in question is a sort of tourist service company, Daigo subsequently visits that local company, but, what do you know, it turns out that the main business of that local company is preparing bodies for a ceremony known as “encoffinment”, and Daigo is aghast to discover that he will be hired as a “nōkanshi”, a traditional Japanese ritual mortician.
Daigo understandably declines to be hired after belatedly realizing what he actually applied for, but Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a laid-back middle-aged man who is the boss of the company, promptly gives an offer he cannot possibly refuse, so he reluctantly agrees to be hired by Sasaki without telling anything to his wife. While he surely fumbles assignments a lot right from his very first day (There is a silly but undeniably hilarious scene where he has to assist his boss for shooting a certain educational video for their business field, for example), Daigo gradually finds himself getting more accustomed to his new occupation day by day, and, as already shown to us from the opening scene, he eventually becomes as professional and dedicated as required by his boss.
Through Daigo and his boss’ professional viewpoint, the movie calmly and courteously observes many different human reactions to death while dexterously balancing itself between humor and drama. In case of the opening scene, there is an unexpectedly humorous moment of surprise and embarrassment in the middle of the ceremony, but we subsequently get caught off guard by the surprisingly emotional aftermath from the grieving father of the dead person, who sincerely and tearfully thanks Daigo and Daigo’s boss for handling his kid’s body with care and respect. As watching this and many other emotional moments from his various clients, Daigo comes to discern more of how important his new profession really is, and he consequently feels far less shame about it than before.
Of course, there eventually comes a moment when Mika comes to learn of how her husband has earned money, but the screenplay by Kundō Koyama wisely takes its time for the expected resolution of its two main characters’ conflict. After listening to some words of wisdom from his boss, Daigo becomes more confident and less unsure about his new occupation in addition to playing a cello from time to time, and then there comes a sudden incident which lets his wife and several other supporting characters have an epiphanic moment of understanding and appreciation on his new occupation.
I initially thought another plot turn later in the movie was rather contrived, but I still remember well the undeniable emotional power of the following scene on me and many other audiences during the screening at the Virginia Theater of Urbana-Champaign, Illinois on the third day of the 2010 Ebertfest. Yes, a certain visual touch during this scene is unabashedly sentimental, but it sublimely works in the context of what has been steadily and thoughtfully built up during the rest of the story, and then the very last shot of the film will remind you of how we all are with death in the midst of life.
Under the skillful direction of director Yōjirō Takita, whom I was honored to meet when he was invited to the 2010 Ebertfest, the main performers of the film leave indelible impressions on us in each own way. While Masahiro Motoki dutifully holds the center via his plain but sensitive performance, the other main performers including Ryōko Hirosue, Kimiko Yo, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, and Tsutomu Yamazaki are also solid on the whole, and Yamazaki is especially wonderful as a no-nonsense boss who surely knows a lot about life and death via his particular set of skills.
Although it has been more than 10 years since it came out, “Departures” has not lost any of its emotional power in my trivial opinion, and I am still in awe for its numerous profoundly humane moments to be admired and appreciated for their simple but graceful presentation on the screen. Yes, this is basically a tearjerker which is quite sentimental and melodramatic to the core, but it is also one of the best human comedy drama films during last 20 years, and it surely earns all the laughs and tears in the story.