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August 31, 2009

I wrote this the night after I saw Departures. The intensity of the experience still tingles my memory even now, almost a month later. I definitely want to see it again some time, but perhaps not for a while. Occasionally, with those rare, beautiful, pitch-perfect movies, I prefer to savour the taste of that first viewing as much as possible, before enriching it with additional experiences. There is a pureness that can’t be replicated ever again.


It’s funny how we stumble onto people, things, places, and experiences in our lives that make us react, provoke a feeling, and propel us forward. Timing is important. So are choices. We all make choices. Some consciously, some not. Some deliberate, some unintentional. Either way we live with them, and the consequences of these choices form the semblances of our lives – the most important experience of all.

Departures (2008), a film by Yojiro Takita, won the best foreign film at the Oscars this year. It’s been out for a year now, but only recently started in public distribution. As of now, it’s only being shown in one theater in Toronto – The Carlton (at college and yonge). The theater is small and has an arthouse feel, the screen not large, probably no more than 20 people were in attendance at the showing I went to (on a public holiday afternoon), and even though a film like this deserves to be seen by many, the circumstances I saw it in was perfect for me.

The film is about an universal truth – death. We all die. One day. All living things die. Actually, the living sustain off the dead – most of our food are “corpses”, as one character in the film puts it so brutally, “except plants”, he said. But even dead plants are in a way corpses, no? It’s a brutal imagery, but a realistic one.

The story centers on Daigo ((Masahiro Motoki), a man who was abandoned by his father in childhood, lost his job as a celloist and moved back home to a rural japanese town with his wife to start over. He finds an advertisement in the newspaper for a job that pays well and requires no experiences. Perfect, he thought. It was described as a company specializing in “departures”, Daigo thinks it’s a tourism company.

Of course, it’s not tourism, but death that the business revolves around. The task involved is “encoffinment”, the act of cleansing and preparing the deceased’s body before cremation. This is a fascinating process performed with dignity, respect, and precision in front of the family members. It’s emotional. It’s culminating. It’s the final act for a person that allows everything to be said, in unsaid terms.

The families are grateful, though they show this in different ways. The job is seen as “unclean” and low-caste. Daigo gets shunned by an old friend and even his wife who loves him is resistent. However, something in him tells him that he is meant to do this. He sees a nobility in it. A quiet elegance. The job mirrors a personal journey within himself that he has struggled with all his life.

The ending was pitch perfect. The emotional payoff was well-earned and definitely prepared for, but I didn’t see it coming at all. It caught me so off guard, that I even surprised myself in my reaction. What quiet elegance, though, does the scene evokes. What devastating poignancy, does the sequence provokes. It made me think of redemption – how death is not only a gateway for the departed, but a gateway for the living – to step into a future after the departed with more clarity, and less regret for the past. To realize our humanity, and to right the wrongs that can be righted, to accept the wrongs that can’t be undone, and to prepare for the choices yet to be made.

To say that there wasn’t a dry eye in the theater is almost superficial. It’s not a tear-jerker. Though it does do that. But most of the heaving sobs, I gather, came from somewhere profoundly personal, and different. The fact that a film can elicit such strong emotional reactions from people of all different races, ages, backgrounds, says plenty.

Unfortunately, this is not the kind of film that can compete with the likes of Harry Potter and Transformers. Go see it – alone or with your loved ones, before it is gone from the few theaters that it is playing in right now. It deserves that much.

Interview with director Yojiro Takita:

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 11, 2010 3:58 PM

    Great review, Grace. The most recent cinematic experience I can compare yours to is going to see Precious, though the reaction was of shock, rather than of sadness. But that ending! I couldn’t have left my seat if I had tried.

    If you want to see another movie that will make you cry (and which is also, coincidentally, Japanese), rent Tokyo Story. Of more recent Japanese films, I really loved the touching Nobody Knows. Not surprising, since the director of that film (Hirokazu Kore-eda) is a great admirer of the director of Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu).

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