Departures: A “Must See” Film Reviewed by Alecia Tallent

As a means of gaining insight into Japanese culture, I highly recommend Departures. For anyone who cares about Japan this is a “must see” film. (Paul Nethercott)

Alecia Tallent
Alecia Tallent

Recently, I (Alecia Tallent) had the privilege of watching Yojiro Takita’s movie, Departures. Winner of the 2009 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, as well as Best Film, Actor, Director, Sound, Screenplay, and Cinematography at the 2009 Japanese Academy Awards.

This simple yet powerful film follows the life of cellist Daigo Kobayashi who is newly married and recently unemployed. Returning to his hometown to try to find a new life for himself and his wife, he accidentally gets a job preparing the dead for funerals. While this may sound like a comedy (and some parts of it are), Departures is a very touching and thought provoking film. I found myself needing tissue often!

Departures is not a movie I would have normally picked… I tend to enjoy action or fantasy films much more than narrative. However, I found myself pleasantly surprised by its ability to transcend cultures, especially in regards to death. Part of Daigo’s job entails restoring dignity to the deceased: washing the body, adding makeup to the face, and dressing them in a nice robe. Ultimately, he is preserving the memory of the deceased in a way that is gentle, beautiful, symbolic, and respectful. I appreciated the concept of beautifying and respecting the memory of the dead, especially for the sake of the mourning family.departures (1)

The movie has much to say about relationships. The movie’s ‘B’ plot centers around the fact that Daigo’s father walked out on his mother when he was only 6 years old. His brokenness and anger at his father is what drives him, leading ultimately to the film’s climax, which I won’t spoil except to say it was both satisfying and tear inducing.

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The film explores how Daigo’s job taking care of the dead affects his relationships: old friends steer clear of him, his wife begs him to quit, and the deep connection he makes with the coffin-shop assistant and the owner of the business. These relationships reflect struggles that most people can relate to: how do you stick up for what you think is right when it brings your loved ones pain, how do you forgive someone who has deeply hurt you, how do you accept and grow to understand the people around you, despite their occupation? Though set in Japanese culture, these questions are universal.

I was impressed with the film’s music, use of symbolism, and cinematography. The symbolism of the main characters unceremoniously feasting on fried chicken after just handling a corpse made me uncomfortable but it was perfect.

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There is very little dialogue in the film, but I did not miss it. The symbols tell the story so beautifully that you can almost feel what’s going on instinctively without necessarily hearing words of explanation. In fact, the last scene of the movie is done almost entirely without dialogue, yet I felt it was the most emotionally powerful part of the entire film.

I find Departures very important for those interested in Japan if only because it has a wonderful depiction of Japanese culture and thought, and it very poignantly reminds any of us concerned with Japan’s spirituality that death is a reality all must face but not all are prepared for.

However, I would not limit this film to being of use only to those who enjoy Japan. I believe everyone would benefit from watching Departures. I was surprised by its cultural transcendence and the amount of reflection it generated as I contemplated death. I  found myself grieving for the ones I had lost but had never really had the time to personally “let go” of in a healthy way.

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The movie touches on the sore spots of humanity, death and broken relationships in a way that helps the viewer face both without making them feel hopeless. My favorite line was spoken by the man working at the crematorium as he prepared to cremate one of his good friends that had passed away, “I believe death is a gateway.”

008dps_ryoko_hirosue_015Finally, I appreciated the moral message of the film: that a healthy respect of death should urge us to treasure life, particularly the lives of our friends and family. I was led to contemplate how much of the Western culture views death almost flippantly. We kill people in movies and video games with ease and our questions about the unborn and the elderly have more to do with generalized social dynamics than with the idea that each life is precious and that death is a tragedy to be mourned and treated with care and dignity.
Departures gently but strongly reminds the viewer that life is temporary, and we should take our relationships more seriously, being quick to forgive, accept, and cherish each other for we may not have another chance. I heartily recommend this film to everyone. Don’t shrink away from it simply because of its subject matter or depth: let its beauty, honesty, and reflective nature seep into you and help you weigh what is truly important in both life and death.

Alecia Tallent works for TEAM (The Evangelical Alliance Mission) at our office in Carol Stream, IL.

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Thanks very much Alecia for reviewing Departures for JapanCAN!

Departures is the only film I’ve seen 3 times in a theater. This remarkable film really touched me. One reason is that, in the end, the main character forgives his father. I have never seen this level of reconciliation and re-connection happen in any other Japanese film. Because of the redemptive nature of the story, I believe the writer knows the Bible well and is most likely a follower of Jesus.

For those of you who know care about what Roger Ebert had to say about Departures, “I showed Yojiro Takita’s film at Ebertfest 2010, and it had as great an impact as any film in the festival’s history. At the end the audience rose as one person. Many standing ovations are perfunctory. This one was long, loud and passionate.” (Roger Ebert)

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