March 12, 2010: Review of movie “Departures”

March 12, 2010

Once and a great while, I see a film that I would call perfect. I know it’s perfect because it stays in the DVD player, for at least one additional playing. A perfect film leaves me with the feeling “I wish I had produced this movie” and (even more rarely) “…I wouldn’t change a thing!” Such was my mind after seeing the Japanese film “Departures” this week. “Departures” directed by Yojiro Takita, won the Academy Award last year for Best Foreign Film, and also won the Japanese Academy Prize for just about every category imaginable. There is a great message about food in “Departures” but I would like the viewers to find this on their own.

The story is of a young cello player named Daigo, living in Toyko, whose life is radically changed when his orchestra is dissolved. Daigo moves with his wife to his departed mothers place to what a Toyko resident must think of as “the sticks.” As Daigo starts to look for work, he answers an ad for a person dealing with “departures.” Thinking he is going for travel agent job, he is immediately hired by the boss who explains that through a misprint of the word “departed” that the job is for a “nokanshi” (NK for short, meaning “coffiner”) agent and Daigo is horrified.

Here we need to explain a few things about Japanese culture: a “coffiner” in Japanese society is one who prepares the departed for burial by the practical and symbolic washing of the departed, as well as application of makeup and dress, pre-burial. The role, historically, was done by a family member, but in modern times is done by the NK agent. We in the west tend to think of undertaking as an odd but necessary job. In Japanese society, however, this job is thought of as somehow “contaminated.”

Daigo hides the facts of his new job from his wife and friends, but after the more ghastly aspects of the job on his first assignment, are over, he starts to see the importance of sending his “clients” off with dignity and care. His boss is a perfect mentor and guide for Daigo, using patience, kindness, and humor to steer his course.

“Departures” is cinematically well photographed, and is well thought out: a shot of fire dissolving into geese taking off-beautiful, and suggests the Phoenix returning from the ashes. A simple focus pull to suggest memory and love coming back-spectacular. I loved the idea of the “stone letter” and have to check with Yoshio and my friends how accurate this might be in Japanese culture. Americans might be a little frustrated with Daigo’s wife as she too, goes through her arc. She might seem too complacent and emotionally still, but it is just through her stillness that her strength comes through. Her quiet statement “my husband is a professional” comes across as almost a shout of acceptance and pride.

Surprisingly, with such a grim subject, a good deal of humor and affection comes through without ignoring the realities of the range of emotion that happens when we lose a loved one. The arc of Daigo is a wonderful story as he goes from repulsion to rediscovering his art through this improbable occupation. The nods to nature’s cyclical aspects are represented through the “return cycle” of geese and salmon. Pointing out “they want to come home” is a poignant message, particularly when it is spoken by the “Gatekeeper” who will inevitably send us all on our way home…with love and care, if we are lucky or worthy enough.



  1. Love this film! And you noticed the geese-fire shot as well. Music is memorable, characters engrossing, story simple yet poignant. A brilliant Jap film.

  2. Love this movie–had me thinking about dad the whole time. Though I thought the relationship between the main character and his wife was so irritating. They lied to each other a lot and she was so ashamed of him.

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