Departures – Review

by Miguel Douglas


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Departures follows Kobayashi Daigo, a man unsure of what to do with his life. Having lost his job as cellist in an orchestra, Daigo and his wife leave Tokyo and move back to his hometown in order to restart their lives. Daigo answers an ad for what he believes is a travel agency, but turns out to be an encoffinment agency. Taking the job anyway, he begins a new life as an encoffinment specialist under the austere owner Sasaki. Despite his initial fears and misconceptions concerning the cleansing and clothing of the deceased, Daigo soon discovers the new job and the town suit him. Carefully preparing the departed for their final journey with the utmost care, he finds a greater appreciation and understanding for his life in the process. The stigma of the profession, however, is not lost on his wife, and his choice of work gradually takes toll on their marriage.

The discussion surrounding death has always been a rather taboo subject within many countries throughout the world, with Japan certainly not free from its grasp. The ease for one to simply ignore death is there, but it’s something we all must eventually face whether we would like to consider it or not. But unlike the Western viewpoint in which death is primarily viewed as a more personal affair, Japan views it as a more a communal process, one in which the decease remain within the realm of this world to share in the daily lives of the ones they knew when alive. This voyage of death concerning the physical body is viewed simply as a necessary part of one’s life—a natural step everyone must eventually undertake. Based loosely on author Aoki Shinmon’s book entitled Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician, Yōjirō Takita’s Departures is a one such film that explores this difficult subject, but does so in a very creative yet plausible fashion. It’s interesting to note that Masahiro Motoki apparently came up with the concept of the film after reading author Aoki Shinmon’s book, and inspired by his own experiences while visiting India, Motoki wanted to create a film dealing with such a ritual practice.

In this regard, Departures offers us a view into a profession that is often looked down upon within Japanese society because of its relationship with death. The occupation of encoffiner is certainly not a conventional job in the slightest, and the film elaborates upon this profession in a very realistic portrayal where initial disgust and anger intermingle at the mere thought of it. The societal stigma that surrounds it is also heavily examined, as it showcases the effects of encoffining through the eyes of family members as well as the individuals who conduct the ritual practice. Instead of conveying a simplistic portrait that death is solely a sad occasion, the film offers a crucial look into how we judge life and death as equal components within the way we live our own lives. Through the practice of encoffining, the film reveals the utmost respect for not only the dead, but also the cherishment and appreciation for the living as well. It’s this reflection upon death and the valuing of human life that elevates the film far beyond a simple cultural examination of a ritualistic process, but offers a sense of universality that extends itself towards the viewer.

The various universal themes explored throughout Departures establish it as a poignant reflection upon the dignity of human life and its accord with death. While death is certainly no simple affair to digest, the film deconstructs many of the negatives stereotypes that encompass this notion, especially within the realm of Japanese society. While society views the encoffining ceremony as appreciative ritual, the practitioners of it are frequently viewed as unclean due to them dealing with the deceased. While this association is showcased, the film also reveals the immense responsibility and respect that these individuals must apply towards the deceased. While at first unable to even confess his newfound job to his wife due to the stigma attached to it, Daigo slowly sees the crucial role in being the mediator for an individual from one life to the next. The film works exceptionally well in this regard, where we see the transformation of Daigo from an insecure prospect despising the craft to later eliciting a most profound respect towards it. Through his dealing with the deceased on a daily basis, Daigo comes to realize the importance of not only his own life, but also more specifically the relationships he shares with others in the world of the living.

For such a taboo subject in not only Japan, but also most of the world, the film is able to present death through a wide spectrum that includes that of humor, compassion, and most certainly wisdom. This diverse range allows the film to tackle considerably contemplative material in a manner free from being entirely too sentimental for the sake of its direction. This in itself offers up a film that deals with real emotions amidst the background of pain and loss of losing a loved one, and the ramifications that affect the entirety of those involved. The various ways in which death is dealt within the structure of the family is also explored, where differing views on the matter are brought forth and conflicting emotional issues take prominence. Not everyone feels the same regarding death, and the film makes sure to focus upon the various aspects that contribute to that fact. While mostly viewed as a communal issue, the film also elaborates upon the issue of death on a more personal level through the likes of Daigo. While viewed as the main protagonist within the film, his journey is not only learning the practice of encoffining but also of reconciling with his own past. Similar reconciliatory efforts are expressed by many of the other characters throughout the film as well, and being juxtaposed with that of death, make for a deeply touching journey of the human spirit.

Overall, Departures is a deeply profound film that relishes upon a facet of life we might not like discuss, but explores it in the most sensitive and compassionate way. The film’s ability to alleviate the fears surrounding death are established through vivid moments of acceptance of such loss, moments where we the audience are able to examine our own lives and relationships similar to the way the characters within the film do. The film succeeds highly in this regard and its expression of universal themes resonant as a powerful testament to the complementary nature of both life and death. Anyone who has experienced such loss will certainly find the film even more relevant and perhaps even therapeutic in some capacity. The film is marvelously beautiful in many respects, but perhaps mostly for its statement that death isn’t an issue to simply hide away and avoid, but to confront with the utmost respect and dignity. It’s a film that attempts to enrich the quality of our lives by showcasing the beauty of human life and death, all culminating in a remarkably passionate and moving experience.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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  • TWWK

    Beautifully written review – I’ve been wanting to watch this film for quite some time, and even moreso now after reading your post. Thanks!

  • Miguel Douglas

    Thanks for the kind comment Charles! This a fantastic film that I’d recommend to anyone due to its universal themes.