Published on Thursday, October 14, 2010 - 5:01pm
When his orchestra is dismantled, Daigo Kobayashi decides to move back to the small town of his childhood with his wife to regroup. In need of a job, he answers an advertisement in the local newspaper for a specialist in “Departures,” without even being sure of what this might mean. Turns out, it’s for a “Nokanshi,” a funeral professional that, in Japan, is much more than your run-of-the-mill undertaker.
At first horrified, Daigo makes an effort to keep his job mostly because he really just needs a job. Slowly, he begins to understand the service the work his supervisor and mentor, Ikuei Sasaki, does for the community. Like the death of a loved one, the rituals of death are something that can only be fully understood once experienced, and this movie does a truly wonderful, moving job of showing the audience the transformation that families undergo as they bid their final farewells to their beloved deceased. At first cold and aloof toward the Nokanshi, the mourners later treat them almost as extended members of the family. The movie does a wonderful job of transmitting how the bodies of the deceased are prepared and transformed under the expert hands of these Nokanshi into the daughter, grandmother or father these families knew and loved.
Departures is a multifaceted, deceptively passive title, but the film isn’t. It’s about how a person slowly discovers that he is not up to par to the profession he had chosen to define him, and how he mitigates that discovery. It’s about having the strength to revisit painful assumptions about others and changing yourself in the process, while others change their initial views of you after truly having a second look. And yes, it’s about preparing the deceased in the most loving way possible for their final voyage into the afterlife.