One could choose any number of labels to attempt categorizing Departures. It’s a film indebted to the rapturous compositions of the past. It shares elements akin to any police procedural ever made or for that matter, the veterinary antics from a British gem like All Creatures Great and Small.
They are admittedly disparate reference points, but they seem fitting given Departures subject matter. No, not a travel agency as our main character Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) supposes.
The job title of NK Agent, picked out of the local ad section, relates to something entirely different. They take care of the dear departed — that is — they work with dead bodies. There’s the aloof veteran trained in all facets of the trade and the young newcomer aching to prove himself.
Each case brings with it, its own unique complications. It’s not a common art nor one that is held in much regard. But as the film explores over time, it plays a crucial role in a society that must grapple with death and bid adieu to loved ones like everyone else.
In his former life, Kobayashi had a position of repute. The Greeks might have liked him. He didn’t denigrate himself with toil and sweat as much as the common man. He was an artist; a cellist to be exact, and he brings joy to the masses and swelling pride to his devoted wife Mika (Ryōko Hirosue). The only problem is no one is showing up to their concerts and so the orchestra is unceremoniously dissolved.
In keeping with spousal protocol, Mika stays supportive and suggests they move to his old family home in the country where they might live for free as he figures his affairs out. But as one who is even only minorly familiar with Japanese culture, there is an inkling something else dwells hidden from view — just waiting to reveal itself.
Daigo answers a job description on a whim and finds himself greeted by the quizzical secretary (Kimiko Yo) and a boss (Tsutomu Yamazaki) who has an unorthodox manner of doing business, especially in such a highly methodical, procedure-heavy culture like Japan.
Needless to say, the new hopeful sits down for about two seconds and comes home with the job and his first bonus. It’s a hilarious initial interaction setting their relationship in stark relief. We like his workplace for how very unique it is. Because these people feel like they might easily be punchlines and nothing more, and yet we grow to appreciate them even as Kobayashi remains our protagonist.
This is what Departures is able to manage. It’s drama but never squeamish about utilizing comedy. Take, for instance, the moment he’s called on to play a cadaver in his senpai’s sponsor spot or when he throws up in the presence of a particularly grizzly undertaking. In the aftermath, some schoolgirls comment on the rancid smell on the bus leading him to take an expedient trip to the local bathhouse to clean up.
But in contrast, Departures is full of all kinds of emotion and soft strings of pathos, whether hyper-realized or not. In between the lines are complications and relationships wrought with both warmth and the tension of lives shaped by regret. The best moments are unspoken, reflected by totems or actions. The handling of a weathered stone, the heart-rending notes of a cello, and certainly the ceremonial burying of bodies.
Even the moment where Daigo must fess up and tell his wife what he’s really been up to, it tears her apart; she’s so very ashamed that he would take part in something so defiling. It bores into the heart of this narrative.
Because to its very essence, the movie not only puts words to a very archaic Japanese art no one wants to acknowledge, it also supplies a space in which to grapple with death and how we grieve — how we let our loved ones go into the great beyond.
Since the dawn of man, it has been a prevalent theme throughout the ballads and religious convictions of mankind, whatever the background. Even a basic deist like Ben Franklin noted that the only things we may count on are “death and taxes.”
Egyptians were embalmed for a future afterlife with relics now found in the British Museum for us all to fawn over. Norse heroes dreamed of Vahala, a place to glory over their valorous feats with their countrymen.
Christians believe in not simply an afterlife but a new heaven and new earth where this current world, with all its flaws, will pass away. On a cursory level, varying strains of Buddhism and Hinduism often delve into issues of rebirth in further pursuit of nirvana or enlightenment.
For Japan, in particular, death is so closely tied to family. Rather like Latin culture, there is this extension of the family unit reaching out into the great unknown where saying goodbye and keeping constant communications with dead ancestors is a part of culture, albeit a dying art.
Taking stock of these themes, it makes sense many have decried the film for its sentimentalities. Yes, there are touches of the saccharine, but what resonated with me most was something else. When it counted most, Departures managed to be a delicate drama in a manner suited to Japanese society where quiet strength is prized and benign tranquility highly sought.
And if you guess the plot points — not an altogether difficult task — it means very little to me. Because for many meaningful movies, these narrative elements are only employed to hang your hat on. What really matters are the characters, the emotions they exude, and whether or not they can reach out to the audience and induce a reaction.
Departures was such a film for me. One of the miracles of life is finding some semblance of humor in the darkest, saddest parts. Death is undoubtedly one of these. However, it begins with coming to peace with the future. Knowing that we were made for something more than this world of ours. We are not destined to be creatures of death, but creatures of life. Of course, that’s only one man’s opinion. We all deal with departures differently.