Departures* is a film that works in spite of itself, that wades deeply in the waters of sentimentality and cliché but never quite submerges, and that contains enough moments of cinematic beauty and narrative charm to redeem its occasionally maudlin elements. I resisted it at first but finally surrendered, and I think many audience members will do the same. It’s flawed, to be sure, and perhaps not deserving of the Academy Award for best foreign film. But I forgive its lapses because it moved me, and because the parts that work work so well.
The story begins with Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki), a young cellist whose orchestra has just been dissolved. He moves with his wife back to his hometown in the countryside of Yamagata. He answers a vague ad in a newspaper for what he thinks is a tour guide position and ends up working as a nokanshi (roughly translated as “casketer”), a job with a complicated history in Japan. While undertakers handle the work of preserving the body, the casketer must clean it, apply make-up, and perform the highly ritualized tasks necessary to prepare the corpse for “departure” into the next realm. As in many cultures, working with the dead is a stigmatized job in Japan, so Daigo keeps his new job a secret from his wife.
The film begins as a comedy poking fun at Daigo’s ignorance about the nature of his new job and at the business of funeral work in general, complete with over-the-top reaction shots and an emotive acting style. The humor remains throughout most of the film, but things get more interesting when we see that the senior casketer (brilliantly played by Tsutomu Yamazaki) has a genuine devotion to and respect for his work, a respect that Daigo gradually starts to emulate. The scenes of bodies being cleaned and dressed are beautifully filmed, mixing close-ups with long, quiet shots of Daigo going about his work with the meticulous care of a surgeon. Even the jokes are handled with dignity. Death is a messy business, and the indispensible job of the casketer is to make it all a little more organized. Sometimes with a careful choice of lipstick.
Departures believes that we could all learn something from the casketer, who in an unsqueamish embracing of the dead is able to embrace life with equal passion. When Daigo comes home to his wife and begins to claw desperately at her clothes, we know what he is clinging to. Associating death with fear, uncleanliness and repulsion ultimately serves no one, it seems. The casketer, who spends so much of his time among the dead, is ultimately more alive for doing so.
Some of the film’s touches are distracting—Daigo’s frequent voiceovers could be scrapped altogether, and the subplots involving his absent father and his wife’s eventual discovery of his job belong more in the realm of soap opera. But other details strike just the right note. The elderly bathhouse owner who flirts with a lonely longtime customer. The superb performance of Tsutomu Yamazaki, who says more with a shift of his gaze than many actors can say in an entire monologue. The remarkable opening scene, in which a body-cleaning session yields an awkward surprise. The way that the chief casketer surrounds his office with living things. And the way that a movie about death ultimately becomes a celebration of life—of sex, of eating, of family turmoil, and of grudges finally let go.
* The Japanese title of the film is Okuribito—while translated as Departures, its meaning is closer to “The Departed.”