DJ Versey Verse merrily skips into a new funeral home to learn the Japanese art of encoffinment in Departures.
The daily machinations of life in a funeral home never screamed “box office gold” before we were introduced to the Fisher family in Alan Ball’s ground-breaking 2001 cable series, Six Feet Under. The balance of human drama, black comedy, dashes of philosophy and a willingness to tackle the taboos surrounding death and what happens to the human body once it no longer breathes was groundbreaking. Throw in a killer soundtrack and an oddly pro-incest stance and a generation was hooked. To tackle similar subject matter without retreading old ground (and without the indie tunes and do-your-sister subplot) was a challenge but it’s one that Departures (Okuribito) masterfully overcomes.
Contextualised within conservative Japanese society with its strict social rules and rituals; death, in this world, is the subject of solemn ceremony but also of great fear and shame as discovered by Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki). As his dreams of becoming a great concert cellist look as if they’ll never be realized, Daigo returns to his hometown with his frustrated but supportive wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) in order to start afresh and see his former home through new eyes. His job prospects grim, Daigo applies for a job with an agency that deals with “departures”. Daigo isn’t what one would call quick on the uptake and thus is surprised to learn the agency is not a travel agency as he previously thought but rather, an agency that practises the art of encoffinment – a ceremony where the dead are prepared in front of family and mourners for their final resting.
Like Six Feet Under before it and the offbeat necrophiliac romance, Kissed (2006), Departures balances what could be an oppressive stifling drama with tender moments of humour and unpredictable, impulsive characters such as Shoei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), the pragmatic president of the agency who only asks his new employee one question – “will you work hard?” – before hiring him on the spot.
Daigo overcomes his initial misgivings to find a quiet solace in his work, taking great pride and comfort in the ritual of tending to the departed while their loved ones watch on. This opinion is not shared by Mika whose disgust at his work represents the wider community and the taboos surrounding death. But ultimately this leads them to evaluate the possibilities of life with all its regrets, misunderstandings, missed opportunities, grief and ultimately, hope.
Anyone who’s ever seen a film about a wounded character returning home to come to terms with their past will know where this one’s heading and director Yojiro Takita is certainly in no hurry to get to his destination. After a very engaging opening involving some surprising revelations regarding a female corpse, the film does slow to a crawl. But that is half the charm and also a very deliberate step as it comments on the moments we miss as we rush through our normal routines. And while its many awards and acclaims (among them the Best Foreign Language Oscar) may raise expectations a little higher than necessary, Departures is a beautifully meditative experience with mostly strong, endearing performances (despite a little hysteria), an evocative score (by Joe Hisaishi – frequent collaborator with Hayao Miyazaki) and a dry humour that ensure the film doesn’t crumble into sentimentality.
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