Japanese film Departures tells the story of Daigo a professional cellist who loses his dream job with a Tokyo orchestra. In debt, and with no other options, Daigo makes the decision to move with his wife Miko, back to his hometown to live in the house he inherited from his mother.
While job hunting, Daigo finds an ad for a job assisting in departures which promises good pay with no experience required. Upon arriving at the business which he thinks is a travel agency, he discovers from the owner that the ad is a misprint. The position available is actually as an assistant to help with “departures”, more commonly known as an undertaker.
The owner hires him on the spot despite Daigo’s hesitancy to work with the dead. Being unsure that he will keep the job and embarrassed by it, he does not inform his wife about the details of his new position.
But as time passes and Daigo is mentored by his employer, he begins to understand and value the importance of a job which helps grieving friends and family members send their loved ones off with a beautiful farewell.
“One grown cold, restored to beauty for all eternity. This was done with a calmness and precision and above all a gentle affection. At the final parting, sending the dead on their way, everything done peacefully and beautifully.”
For a film which focuses on death, Departures is surprisingly moving. Although the subject matter is both sad and serious, the message of the film and the journey Daigo experiences in his position, is both positive and optimistic.
One thing which really touched me is how the film portrayed the death of Daigo’s long earned dream of being a professional cellist. It is only after he releases this dream that he finds his true calling. Working with corpses is not most people’s idea of a fulfilling and meaningful job. Yet Daigo learns that although he is handling the dead, it is really life that he helps to celebrate. His work helps to bring closure and peace to those who mourn.
Because Departures is a film which celebrates life, the human relationships take center stage. Daigo still struggles with his father’s abandonment of him when he was young. And he grieves the fact that he missed his mother’s funeral because of his busy lifestyle. With his boss acting as both mentor and father figure, he learns how to accept and honor all lives, even those who lived imperfectly.
Daigo’s relationship with his wife also plays a major part in his transformation. Although she willingly accepts his decision to move their lives back to his home town, she balks at his newly chosen profession. Mika is entirely loving, supporting and accepting of Daigo despite the fact that he makes decisions without consulting her. She finally gives him an ultimatum, which reveals the depth of his commitment to his new life.
Although this is a deep and serious film, there are some humorous moments as you might imagine with this subject matter. The funniest scene is Daigo’s first assignment where he must help his boss prepare the body of an elderly woman who had died in her home remaining undiscovered for many days. I could sympathize with his disgust on entering her filthy home and his gag reflex upon seeing her decaying form.
A final highlight of this film for me was the window it provided into Japanese culture. It always fascinates me to see how other people live in comparison to my own way of life. The Japanese countryside is also pretty stunning and I felt like I had traveled to Japan directly from my living room.
Departures is a deeply touching story which portrays the dichotomy of life and death. In portraying the sadness of death, Daigo and the viewer learn how to appreciate the gift of life and to live it more fully.
This film is available to stream on Amazon and iTunes.