Yojiro Takita's Departures gently probes, almost satirically, our fear and discomfort regarding death by taking as its subject a Nokanshi or 'encoffiner,' a person whose job is to prepare the deceased for its final journey by reverentially washing and dressing the body in a ceremony witnessed by the grievers. By dramatically documenting this particular cultural practice, Takita creates both a statement about the powerful catharsis of ritual and the dignity of work.
Takita overlays an impressively effective comical touch with a delicate appreciation of the macabre that especially succeeds as it also reveals our own complex feelings about death. But Departures is hampered by an overly melodramatic plot and sentimental elaboration from what could have been a subtly persuasive and moving film.
Perfectly scored and sensitively shot, the film opens with an enchanting display of the encoffinner's art with the protagonist Daigo?stately and adroit?dressing and washing a body as his mentor looks on with the grieving family. Actor Masahiro Motoki communicates the grace and beauty of the practice and the poignancy of a skill being passed from one generation to the next in an era when such practices may be fading. Then the movie flashes back to the events that led Daigo to take up this profession.
Having lost his job as a cellist in a city orchestra, Daigo and his wife return to his hometown. Looking for work, he almost accidentally stumbles into this rather morbid job, but the money entices him to stay long enough to overcome his squeamishness and begin to appreciate the art and value of his work. The small town setting provides the film with ample opportunity to celebrate institutions, practices and values that modern life threatens to leave behind.
One of the most powerful images in the film, as one would expect, is the transformation that takes place as Daigo helps his boss (played by a wondrously understated Tsutomu Yamazaki) do the job. The application of make-up restores the familiarity of the visage to the mourners. The seriousness and formality that keeps the grievers civil, thaws and breaks and in that renewed recognition they get to bid farewell a final time. For Daigo, witnessing this transformative magic marks his own evolution as he realises the powerful good his occupation can bring about as he comes to terms with working with the dead.
The taboo of his work also entails dramatic consequences for Daiga including being ostracised from his small community and even having to deal with his wife's inability to come to terms with it. Unfortunately, these and other overly dramatic plot elements overcrowd the quieter and cleverer parts of the film and draw the film to an unnecessary 130 minutes. Sometimes, I suppose, even with a good thing, the end can't come soon enough.
Director: Yojiro Takita
Cast: Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue
2009, 131 mins.