Review: ‘Departures’: embracing life’s twists and turns
July 31, 2009
I can think of five different shades of meaning that writer Kundo Koyama and director Yôjirô Takita might have had in mind in creating “Departures.”
There is the sense of physically leaving a place, and, separately, saying good-bye to a person. There is taking a different course than what is considered the norm. There is changing the path one has been on to explore another route. And there is death, the final departure from the world of the living. “Departures,” a slow but penetrating work which won the Academy Award for best foreign language film, illuminates each of these meanings of the word, and taken together these different sorts of departures add up to a meaningful examination of what goes into, and what makes up, a life. It focuses on the surprises encountered along the way, and suggests that it is in embracing these odd turns that we find satisfaction.
The film opens with two men, one older, one younger, driving through a cold, foggy Japanese countryside. In voice-over, the younger one informs us that it has been two months since he returned from Tokyo to his hometown in the mountains. He tells us that the adjustment has been difficult and strange, and in an abrupt change of scene, we see part of the reason why.
The young man, Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) is participating in an “encoffining” ceremony – the preparation of a corpse, in front of the deceased’s family, before it is placed in the coffin. The older man, Ikuei (Tsutomo Yamazaki), asks Daigo if he wants to take over the lead role in the process. Daigo does, and as he runs his hands along the body, he discovers that the body is not that of a dead woman, as he supposed, but a dead man. In retrospect, this was a clever touch: Can there be a bigger departure in life than altering one’s gender?
Daigo, too, has had a major change of course. Going back in time, the film shows us that Diago had been a professional cellist in an accomplished orchestra. But following a sparsely attended concert, the orchestra owner informs the musicians that the group is being dissolved. Daigo gives his wife, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), the bad news, and the further bad news that his new cello had cost a small fortune. He proposes that they leave Tokyo and make a new life in the mountain village where he grew up.
In their new home, Daigo answers a want ad he assumes is for a travel agency. “Departures,” the ad says – but it is a misprint that should have read “the departed.” Daigo, already lacking self-confidence, is troubled by the work and his suitability for the job, but his boss Ikuei is strangely, calmly insistent that it was fate that brought Daigo to his office. No one else – not Mika, not the childhood friend that Daigo has become reacquainted with, not Daigo himself – is comfortable with the new job. But after a few rough assignments, he eases into the work, discovering that easing the transition from life to death is an important service to the bereaved families.
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Hovering over the story is Daigo’s father, who had walked out on the family while Daigo was a boy. Over and over, Daigo expresses the resentment he still feels, and it is clear that the father will re-enter the picture in some manner. He does, and the way he does, and how Daigo responds is the final stroke in “Departures.” It is a warm and fuzzy – but also a complex and satisfying – statement on closing life’s circles, becoming complete. Making sure that departures are followed by reunions.