Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is doing what he loves most, playing the cello in an orchestra. Unfortunately, after his orchestra is disbanded he finds himself jobless with a very big loan on his newly purchased cello. With few prospects in terms of jobs in Tokyo, Daigo decides to abandon his dream and return to his small hometown with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) where he can live in his family home for free. Looking for work, Daigo soon answers an ad in the local paper for a job ambiguously named “Departures”. He is shocked to learn that instead of a travel agency, the business deals with the “departed”. Upon first sight, the owner of the business (Tsutomu Yamazaki) gives him the job and a generous salary forces Daigo into accepting the position. But when his first day on the job involves recovering and preparing a badly decomposed corpse for a wake, Daigo realises this job might not be for him after all.
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009, Yôjirô Takita’s Departures was an unexpected box office hit in Japan, all the more surprising given the fact that the subject is strongly taboo in the country. After all, it is an absorbing drama about life and loss with a minimalistic feel that doesn’t detract it from being surprisingly moving and meaningful. Takita portrays the passing of life with affection and compassion, never showing anything untasteful that might repulse viewers. We watch as Daigo’s initial revulsion for the task progressively gives way as he experiences the elegance, compassion and dignity of the death rituals which comforts the families of the deceased at one of their most difficult time. We learn about the surprisingly meticulous and ceremonious ritual that take place for the deceased before they are placed in their coffin. Despite its subject, the film is surprisingly uplifting and optimistic, signaling that death is not an end but a new beginning.
On a somewhat disappointing note, Departures is a bit uneven in terms of tone, abandoning its hint of dark comedy at the halfway point, and becoming a bit too melodramatic and manipulative in the second half. The movie also feels too “nice” and the ending is too neatly tied up. When Daigo’s wife finally realizes what he does for a living, she is disgusted and sees him as “unclean”, leaving him after he refuses to give up his job. However, she inexplicably returns a few weeks later as if nothing happened.
Masahiro Motoki gives a solid performance overall, portraying a nuanced and layered character. However he tends to resort to slapstick for comic relief which sometime felt out of place, given the overall tone of the movie. Yamazaki is splendid as the taciturn owner of the business, often able to deliver laughs while doing absolutely nothing but being present in a scene. The cinematography complements the elegance and beauty of the rituals while Joe Hisaishi’s score is beautifully melancholic and sentimental.
Notes: Rated PG-13 for thematic material, 130 minutes.