Japan is one of the most nuanced countries in the world, a place where every single ritual, each calibration of social position, is connected with ancestors through its historical roots. Cinema production in Japan is also soaked in the daily routine and mindset of the country where `the Sun rises`, as the Japanese say. Together, we will explore fascinating stories about culture, birth, life, and death in our special cycle about the Japanese movie industry.
In 2009, `Departures` or `Okuribito` won an Oscar as the best foreign movie. The film about a musician who leaves the concert stage to dress corpses for their final journey brought in 60 million dollars from all over the world. This incredible success on the international scene triggered a new round in the development of the Japanese cinema.
Director Yōjirō Takita was already known through his previous works, including soft-core features – also called `pink`. He shared the backstage of the low budget film scene in Japan with Kiyoshi Kurosawa (“Tokyo Sonata”) and Masayuki Suo (“Shall We Dance”). He won an Oscar and gave a charge of energy to the Asian film industry. In spite of this and his collaborations with successful directors, Takita was still identified as a `pink` movie creator.
What’s in the plot?
The young, gifted Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) plays the cello in a Tokyo orchestra. When the orchestra experiences a setback he loses his job, and the stress of his obligations takes him to a new place. Under these circumstances, he gives the cello back to the shop, partly to cover his debts and deal with unemployment. It is a huge problem for him and his wife, Mika (Ryôko Hirosue).
Throughout “Departures”, Daigo reveals his thoughts, partly through monologues which help us to understand the hero better. Thus, after he sells his cello, he experiences an unbelievable freedom from the dream that had always weighted upon him. He decides to leave Tokyo and move home, where he grew up, where his mother lived and died. Where the father abandoned the family when Daigo was 6, leaving a sense of pain over the injustice of life that he has never forgotten. Eventually, he gives up music and finds a job in an absolutely unrelated field – in a funeral parlor.
By the way, in Japan funeral parlor work is not a new profession, and you learn in the film that it’s a niche, and therefore an elite service. The fact is that this profession had become rare by the time “Departures” was produced, in 2008. But ten years later, Bloomberg published an article saying that such companies later became popular. Many people started using ritual agencies, giving rise also to cleaning companies that sorted and transported the deceased’s belongings.
This trend grew out of a generational pattern in Japan, where, in 2017, the mortality rate was much higher than the birth one. Therefore, Japan is also called `an aging country` due to the exceptional proportion of older people in its population.
When music comes into his life again
It’s surprising that the main actor gets his first experience while playing the cello and working as a funeral agent at the same time. He trains with real life experience, preparing his grandmother’s funeral. It takes place in a cold room, and he decides to give the funeral as much warmth as is possible to make his family feel a version of warmth alongside the corpse. This situation is liberating, and he grasps a vision of his future with enhanced accuracy.
In a contrary set of images, Daigo picks up an old cello, in order to understand himself, as a form of contact with his earlier life. The cello becomes an intermediary with the outside world, to transmit his experiences and emotions, forcing an old instrument to live again. This is clearly an allegorical representation of how he is able to revive some of his memories, which are more painful than forgotten. Music serves as an antidote to pain and a breath of liberty.
All the changes in Daigo’s life become fateful. He thinks a lot about life, that he could not help his mother in time. Therefore, he helps people now, helping relatives reconcile to the world of death. But realizing gradually the whole depth of his profession. He discovers the true value of freedom and what it means for him, as a person who, sooner or later, will follow the path of his clients.
Hence, we see how his attitude to life is changing. It is clear that the path Daigo has chosen, even if despised by everyone around him, is almost the only way to get rid of the pain from his past. Watching the final ritual not only with tears, but also with joyful emotion, he realizes the opportunity to give people a real chance to rise from their struggles. Even replacing them with lightness and love. A subtle profession, quite delicately managed by a unique, sensitive person like Daigo, somehow linked to his abilities as a musician.
Economy of motion
Any work can be art, even it’s a dead art, literally. Daigo always practices economy of motion while putting a kimono on a woman’s corpse (after all, this is part of the ritual) or while he shaves a man’s face. His hands glide as gracefully as a cellist’s bow, turning every movement into a series of smooth strokes.
Another storyline opens through Daigo’s relationship with Mika, his wife. In the beginning, she sacrifices her ambitions to help her husband. It causes Daigo to struggle not only with concerns about his expensive cello, but also creating a clear reason to hide its price and his new job as a funeral agent.
Symbolic moments in the film
The symbolic, spiritual connection between Daigo’s father and the 6 year-old child follows the plot throughout “Departures”. Stone messages were a tradition that his father invented. Smooth stone – `I feel good`, rough – `I worry about you`. When Daigo arrives at his deceased father’s side, during the funeral ritual he finds a smooth stone in his hands, which means well-being and happiness. It is a sign message, as if he understands that Daigo will come and know that he leaves the world without anger or regret.
Garden of Eden
When Daigo comes to his boss’s office to discuss his dismissal, he is upstairs (on the second floor). As a footnote, the funeral services office is the place where people call to report a death. When Daigo goes up the stairs he arrives at the place of Heaven on the Earth – flowers and plants everywhere, a pleasant atmosphere – even in the grayest corner of the ritual bureau there is a place for the brightness of life.
Vertical sticks in a bowl of rice
In the first ritual episode, we see a table covered with objects: candles, incense, and uncooked rice, washed with water and salt, poured into bowls.
The `Hashi` sticks are vertical, which in Japanese tradition symbolizes a strict association with death. Also, you cannot prick the food and transfer from stick to stick in daily life.
`You are not pure`
This is said by Daigo’s wife, Mika, when they quarrel over his work. “To be not pure” means that a person is in contact with the dead, and negative energy remains with him.
Traditionally, the Japanese, like other Asians, never go directly home after a funeral or a cemetery visit. It is believed that spirits could follow you back and find their way to the family. That’s why they go to a bar or a restaurant or other bustling place, in order to confuse the spirits lest they follow. By the same reasoning, the tradition of conferring a posthumous name, called kaimyo, is also wide-spread in Japan. It helps to prevent a return of the deceased, whenever her or his name might be spoken.
New life in pregnancy is also a sign of freedom
Mika’s eventual pregnancy is symbolic of a new stage. Surprisingly, a new life will come to them at the moment when Daigo forgives his father for his past mistakes and accepts his new circumstances. It means he becomes ready spiritually to continue the clan of Kobayashi.
`Departures` – is a story about life values. Moreover, it’s a story about an important part of Japanese culture, and not disrespectful of the Japanese, who hope to spend this life in love, tranquility, and harmony. After all, only this is what a person can do to be free!
Read more reviews from the author.
All your donations will be used to pay the magazine’s journalists and to support the ongoing costs of maintaining the site.