Running Time 131 minutes
Written by Kundo Koyama
Directed by Yojiro Takita
Starring Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue, Kazuko Yoshiyuki
Yojiro Takita’s Departures (Okuribito), from the screenplay (in Japanese with English subtitles) by Kundo Kuyama, won last year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in an upset victory in this category over the co-favorites, the Israeli-made Waltz With Bashir and the French-made The Class. In fact, the director was so surprised by his film’s winning of the Oscar that he took too long to get to the stage to say much more than “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” The only review I read before seeing the movie ridiculed the Academy members for their elderly sentimentality. Yet, quite simply, and elderly as I am, I regard Departures as the most moving film I have ever seen commemorating the bonds between the living and the dead.
The convoluted narrative structure of the film allows its protagonist, Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), to introduce himself to us a few months after a big change in his life. He recalls playing the cello for a Tokyo Symphony Orchestra in a half-empty auditorium. At the conclusion of the concert, the orchestra’s impresario announces that the company is being disbanded. Daigo is so disheartened by the loss of his position that he abandons his dreams of becoming a renowned cello soloist, and decides to return with his reluctant wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), to his hometown in the northeastern prefecture of Yamagata, and to the home of his late mother, which she’s left him in her will. We learn later that this house had doubled as the local pub until his bartending father abandoned the family when Daigo was only 5. For his part, Daigo has always regretted being too wrapped up in his musical career in Tokyo to attend his mother’s funeral, especially after she tirelessly promoted Daigo and his musical prospects after her husband deserted them.
Back in Yamagata, when Daigo answers a help-wanted ad with the one-word description, “Departures,” he mistakenly assumes that the position has something to do with tourism. He is startled to discover that the job is concerned instead with the “Departed”—the result of a typographical error in the ad. The company owner, Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), explains the post as one of “encoffination” of corpses in front of their families prior to cremation, and Daigo is at first horrified. But Sasaki’s immediate and substantial cash payment for a trial period persuades Daigo to accept the position despite his misgivings. Sasaki explains that he is getting older, and needs someone to carry on the tradition.
Daigo’s first encounter with a corpse turns into a stomach-turning fiasco. Unfazed, Sasaki instructs Daigo to take the rest of the day off. Daigo takes the opportunity to visit a community bath operated by the mother of his closest school friend. When Daigo finally goes home, he tells Mika that he has gotten a job to pay their bills without revealing its embarrassing nature. And he continues his deception in the weeks that follow.
Meanwhile, Daigo has begun to appreciate the depth and intensity of feelings the ceremony arouses in the families of the deceased. Ironically, Mr. Takita launched his directorial career as a maker of “pink,” or semi-pornographic, Japanese films, but Departures is scrupulously chaste in the “encoffination” procedure that keeps the subject’s flesh from ever being exposed to the view of the family.
When Mika discovers the true nature of Daigo’s employment, she leaves him for a time and returns to Tokyo. She returns reluctantly only after she discovers that she is pregnant. She would still prefer that he give up his job, but he remains adamant on that issue even though he is overjoyed to have her back.
When Mika is persuaded to attend an encoffination ceremony after the sudden death of Daigo’s onetime best friend’s mother, she realizes for the first time the invaluable contribution Daigo’s ceremonial reverence makes in the community by bringing a measure of consolation to the bereaved families.
Daigo’s final ordeal is his being shamed by Mika into performing the encoffination of his suddenly and unexpectedly reappearing late father, whom Daigo had spent his life hating for having deserted him and his mother. The ultimate beauty of the film rests in its symbolic details that bridge the abyss between the living and the dead. As the French might say, it is to make one cry.