My head is even now full of the lingering music of this quietly magnificent film. In spite of numerous interruptions including ads (I watched it on UTV World Movies), I still found Departures or its Japanese title Okuribito (2008), a soulful and stunning film. The story of a young man, an artist, a cellist, who accidentally stumbles into a profession that is socially unacceptable to many makes for a substantive story. Directed by Yojiro Takita, it’s also the Academy Award winner of the Best Foreign Language Film in 2009.
The protagonist Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a cellist in dire need of a job since the orchestra he works in disbands. He moves back to his hometown where job opportunities are scarce. Desperate for a job, he answers an ad for dressing and casketing the recently deceased. Casketing is a ritual in Japan where the body is prepared to be encased in a casket for cremation or burial. At first, he cannot tell his wife the truth. By accepting a job that no one wants to willing do, he becomes an outsider to his friends as well.
A growing realisation that casketing is also an art, a performance, which he learns from none other than a master Mr. Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), the owner of the agency, makes Daigo first respect the job, then embrace it as his true calling. So much so that when his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) asks him to leave his job because she considers it abnormal and unclean, he refuses. Increasingly cut off from regular social interaction, he befriends the others who work at the casketing agency making with them some sort of a surrogate family. In his spare time, he plays the cello as a way to remember the past, the happy times he had with his parents when they were together and the world was a safe place. Thirty years on, he has not forgiven his father for leaving.
When his wife comes back, to announce that she is pregnant, Diago is overjoyed. For the first time when she observes him at work, casketing the woman who ran the bathhouse, she realises the sanctity of his work. She is not the only one; others do too. News of his father’s death reaches Diago one day. After resisting for a while, he agrees to see his father for the last time. He comes to terms with his pain and forgives his father when preparing his father’s body for the casket. The film hits its emotional pitch at this point.
Departures uses music and silence to explore internal landscapes. Perhaps the only ways one can explore such deeply complex and intimately painful territories. Buddhist themes such as letting go and coming to terms with one’s own calling against public opinion and the idea of healing through forgiveness permeate the film. Dialogues are sparse befitting the stillness required both by the way the story is set in and around unspeakable taboo subjects such as death, shame, hurt as well as the general themes it explores. Actors are such a delight in their extremely restrained acting. Emotions are suppressed, only allowing the viewer to peek at them. It’s not a perfect film but it stays with you the way a haunting melody does long after you have stopped listening to it.