Friday, February 26, 2010

Review – Departures

February 27, 2010

Departures – Japan, 2008

Imagine you’re at a party and you meet someone for the first time. You exchange pleasant greetings, and soon the conversation turns to careers. You tell him what you do, and he tells you what he does. Now, if he’s in a highly prestigious field such as law, medicine, or publishing, your conversation will probably continue rather easily. However, what if he said he was a logger or a garbage man or a plumber? Would the conversation be as easy for you to continue? Would you feel a bit uncomfortable? Some people would, despite the fact that there is nothing dishonorable about any of these jobs. And yet, they are not jobs that most parents encourage their children to pursue. No, we’d rather our children did something “impressive” like studying law, running a business, or working with computers. Those are jobs that can be bragged about at cocktail parties. Therefore, I can imagine the look of pride on young Mika Kobayashi’s face when she told friends and loved ones what her husband did for a living – “He plays cello for an orchestra in Tokyo.” The revelation was likely greeted with remarks that confirmed the impressiveness of her husband’s chosen career.

However, fate is a funny thing, and the path we so neatly lay out for ourselves is not always the one we end up going down. Just a few weeks after her husband Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) plays in his first orchestra, Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) finds herself recoiling from him and proclaiming, “Don’t touch me! You’re unclean!” And she is not the only one who reacts to Daigo in this way. A childhood friend won’t allow his wife and child to speak to him. He tells Daigo, “Get yourself a proper job” and adds that people are “talking.” It should be clear by now that at this point in the film Daigo is no longer a musician, but just what profession would elicit these kinds of remarks?

To understand these reactions, one must understand the lengths to which some cultures go to avoid connections with death. Here in Taiwan, many buildings do not have fourth floors – the floors go from third to fifth. In addition, a few years ago in Taipei, after a series of problems with the newly-opened high-speed train, a government official suggested removing the number four from all of serial numbers on the trains. It is also considered taboo to give clocks as gifts. Why? Because in Chinese the words for “four” and “clock” sound like the word for “death.” I also remember a story in the newspaper a few years ago about a coffin supplier that opened a store on Clement Street near Third Avenue in San Francisco. Residents and merchants, many of whom were Chinese or Chinese-American, complained loudly that it was unlucky to have such a business near homes and businesses, and soon a “for rent” sign decorated the store windows instead of three coffins. So just how might someone from a culture that views some words and businesses as having to be avoided ultimately respond to a family member or loved one actually handling dead bodies as a career? Probably just as Mika does. She is embarrassed, ashamed, and scared of what others will say when they find out what her husband does for a living, and so she leaves him, goes back to Tokyo to live with her parents, promising to return when Daigo has come to his senses and quit his job. However, there’s one problem – Daigo is extremely good at his job, and he seems to understand the importance of what he does for a living.

Departures has such an interesting subject matter that it’s easy to forgive it for having a rather predictable structure. In most films about characters such as Daigo, a character makes a socially unacceptable decision and is then ostracized for it. Eventually, his hard work and dedication turn those who were against him earlier into allies, and we have the usual happily-ever-after finale. However, rarely – if indeed ever – has this kind of film been done so well. Much of the credit for this goes to writer Kundo Koyama for creating characters that are compelling and quietly heroic. The most memorable of these characters is Ikuei Sasaki, Daigo’s boss, played by Tsutomu Yamazaki. Yamazaki’s performance is nothing less than incredible, for he has the ability to display emotion and respectability without saying a word. In fact, much of the audience’s admiration for the encoffinment process likely comes from Sasaki’s respectful handling of it. Another impressive character is Sasaki’s secretary, Yuriko Kamimura, well played by Kimiko Yo. At one point, she tells Daigo how she came to work for Sasaki, and we get the sense that this job, as noble as it is, carries with it an unfortunate consequence, isolation. Koyama’s script is also filled with individual moments that are packed with an unusual amount of emotion, and Departures is the only film I can think of that has the power to make audience members cry with characters they have just seen for the first time and will not see again for the duration of the film.

Many of the film’s most memorable moments have to do with the encoffinment process itself, which involves preparing the deceased for burial. During this process, the deceased is cleaned, dressed, and restored to his or her previous beauty. In many countries, this process often takes place in a lab far away from loved ones. In Japan, it often takes place in front of them, and it is startlingly powerful. The dead go from being grey and lifeless to colorful and lifelike. It’s as if they are returning from the dead one last time. The process causes a flood of emotions to enter those that are witnessing it, allowing normally stoic men to release the tears they have probably kept in for too long and for children to giggle the way they did when their grandmother was still alive. Watch how certain characters act before they witness the process. They act very differently afterwards. After one encoffinment, a character who had appeared angry and disrespectful moments earlier tearfully says of his child, “She’d never looked so beautiful.”

Departures is an incredible film. It shows viewers something they may not have seen before and challenges our perceptions of life and death. In a way, Daigo’s personal journey likely reflects that of many of the people in the audience. Daigo is at first uncomfortable with his new job and keeps it a secret from his wife, yet he comes to see its importance. I’d be interested to know if this film has changed anyone’s perceptions of this line of work in Japan. It probably has. As for Mika, it may be a bit of a film cliché, but it was extremely moving to hear her say of her husband, “He’s a professional.” As for Departures as a whole, I feel quite safe saying this – it’s a masterpiece. (on DVD)

5 stars

*Departures is in Japanese with English subtitles.
*Departures won Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Academy Awards.

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