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Departures – Directed by Yojiro Takita

filmTwo things:

  1. Honestly, I don’t only watch Japanese films. But this one was trailered on my I Wish DVD, and it had won an Oscar, so I thought it must be OK and put it on my Lovefilm list. The one I really wanted was Before Sunrise, but Lovefilm sent me out this one first (think there must be a run on Before Sunrise due to Before Midnight being out.)
  2. I really don’t cry all the time. I fact, I don’t cry very much at all and am positively cheery in real life. Although I imagine this doesn’t seem the case from my blog.

Departures is a very simple film about a cellist Daigo who loses his job with an orchestra and finds that he isn’t trained to do anything else. He answers a sketchy advert for a job, whose chief attraction is that no experience needed, and finds himself at the offices of a one-man-and-one-receptionist outfit which carries out the traditional Japanese ceremony of preparing the dead for burial. He takes the job; he needs the money.

The film starts out in rather a farcical way, as per the Japanese sense of a humour. Eg man in a nappy, and a ceremony that goes awry when Daigo realises that the girl in front of him is actually a man. To be honest, at this point I was finding it quite difficult to see where the award winning bit was going to come from.

There is no getting round either the fact that the first hour is quite slow.  Not much happens, although the escaped octopus sequence is quite good: funny, tender, a bit mad, which you suspect and hope is a precursor to the film’s soon to be revealed depths.

Not much is said either. Even when Daigo starts to run into problems when his friends and then wife discover what his new job actually is, the row is quite minimalist: “Everyone dies. I’ll die and so will you. Death is normal.” But Daigo’s wife doesn’t think it is, and hoofs off back to her home town.

After this minor drama, not much continues happening, and not much continues being said. Daigo goes about doing his job and we see a series of ceremonies. Some go well, and some not so well. And then there is a repeat of the ceremony which opened the film, which initially had me thinking “What’s the point of this?”. But a different series of extracts surrounding the ceremony are shown, so that this time instead of being a farce, the second time we realise that the ceremony leads to a father’s moving acceptance of his son’s life and death. Which was pretty amazing.

In this kind of way, all the little things that had accumulated so slowly over the first hour gradually have their meanings revealed. And we begin to be won over to the point of the ceremony, and the point of the film.

Daigo’s wife returns; she’s pregnant. (Although distractingly, she doesn’t look the slightest bit pregnant – and they’ve been though a whole snow-flakey winter and it’s now well into cherry blossom spring.) And she starts to be won over as well, as does Daigo’s erstwhile friend. But nothing is overstated. It just happens, no-one makes a big song and dance about anything.

Japanese films (eg I Wish, Lost in Translation (didn’t get that film at all by the way)) can be a bit industrial looking, but this one is beautiful to look at. Outside, you have cars coming out of the mist, drifting snow, cherry blossom rich and then falling. The house Daigo and his wife inherit from his late mother is an ex coffee house and still set out like one, dark moody panelling and raw inside. Daigo’s boss has an upstairs office which is, well, I can’t even start to describe it. It’s a kind of treehouse which is planted with huge tropical plants, in which he feasts on delicacies such as puffer fish roe. (“Even this is a corpse. The living eat the dead. Unless you want to die, you eat.”)

The acting is amazing. Again, this starts out quite broad, with what can only be described as some alarmingly hammy gurning during the first few scenes by the main character. But by the end, he is completely natural and completely real. I was crying absolute buckets at the end, when I saw him crying in that way people do when they don’t want to cry, but the tears fall anyway.

The ceremony is about the need of those who are still living to feel that they are giving something to their loved one for the last time. It is about taking the dead person back to a point of peacefulness and rest, from where they can be remembered. And then once the living do that, they can accept, and they can say goodbye.

This isn’t like I am really giving away the ending, but the very last sequence is of Daigo simply carrying out the preparation ceremony. Until then, we have always known, however sparingly the story of the dead person. This time, the person and their story are completely unknown to us. But we don’t need to know the story. We don’t need to know, because now we understand.

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