EJ Legaspi, an English educator who went from teaching high schoolers how to read Shakespeare to teaching Japanese students how to say blue, speaks beautifully of Yōjirō Takita’s Oscar winner Departures, its particular depiction of Japan, its use of melodrama, and of his own uprooting.

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Okuribito/Departures

Ever since I moved to Japan, I have become accustomed with saying goodbye. I may not yet be fluent in the language, but I have become far too familiar with the different ways of saying it to the different people I have crossed paths with. Some I bid farewell with the full confidence that I will see them again, if not soon, some day. Others, we greet as if we will see them again, never knowing if that “see you again” is in reality cold formality that is disguised with friendly warmth that cuts that tenuous thread that ties two individuals together.

Departures is a 2008 Japanese film, starring Masahiro Motoki and directed by Yōjirō Takita, that deals with farewells of a clearly more permanent kind. Released in 2009 in the West, it tells the story of a reluctant mortician Daigo Kobayashi (Motoki), a recently unemployed cellist who uproots himself, along with his young wife (Ryōko Hirosue), from Tokyo to his hometown in rural Yamagata Prefecture. Because of a misprint in the job advertisement for “旅のお手伝い” (helping trips), Daigo applies for a position that involves he assumed was for a travel agency.

Upon meeting the instructable owner, Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), Daigo learns of the true nature of the work, which is to “旅立ちのお手伝い” (helping people depart). Despite his strong reservations, Daigo tentatively accepts and faces the backlash for taking on an unclean profession.

A passion project of for Masahiro Motoki, and while passion projects tend to be a hit-or-miss affair, this was not the case for Departures, or Okuribito as it is known in Japan. Ever since he witnessed the funeral rituals by the River Ganges in India, the then-27-year-old Motoki became fascinated with humanity’s relationship with death. This led him to learn about the nōkanshi—a Japanese mortician of sorts, who performs the ritual of encoffining. Given Japan’s standoffish relationship with death, this Japanese Buddhist ritual was largely unknown to the Japanese public.

Despite its weighty subject matter, the film handles death with a surprisingly light touch without losing the emotional impact of dealing with loss. This thanks largely to the exceptional musical score by Studio Ghibli’s frequent collaborator Joe Hisaishi, who elevates the film to another level. It received generally good buzz, culminating in its surprising “Best Foreign Language Film” win at the 81st Academy Awards.

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Departures

Like many people, I had learned about the Okuribito solely because of its Oscars win.  It was beautiful. Japan looked beautiful. And ever since then, it became one of those movies I would come back to every now and then, like an old friend you promised to touch base with.

Since seeing the film all those years ago, I, in a similar fashion to Daigo, have uprooted myself, from urban Manila, Philippines to rural Shimane, Japan. While it may seem that Okuribito was the reason I came here, that is not the case: Moving here has always been a personal dream, and the film merely served as some kind of a catalytic kick-in-the-butt to start setting that long-gestating plan to motion.

It was therefore by no great accident then, that four years ago, as the Tokyo-bound plane was barreling down the runway, that the Okuribito theme that was piping through my earphones was swelling into its climax. It’s almost as if the Joe Hisaishi made those cello strings vibrate at the same frequency that the sinews in my heart sing…starting off dark and sonorous, but before long, soaring.

The confluence of that moment in my life was as beautiful as it was a tad contrived.

And that was the exact feeling that hung over me after watching this film again for this review—Departures/Okuribito is, at some key points, unequivocally contrived. By this I am referring to predictable plot points such as the subplot involving Daigo’s estranged father (and his “story stones”) and the use of symbolism such as the ephemeral sakura/cherry blossoms and the journey of the spawning salmon to depict the tenuous balance between life and death are so well-worn, they border on being amateurish.

How then could then this film have received so much acclaim, as to not just becoming the first Japanese film (Rashōmon and others were awarded special Oscars) to win Best Foreign Language Film, but also single-handedly reviving interest in the encoffining ritual in Japan?

I have come to two possible reasons for this.

First, is its pleasing depiction of Japan. From the aforementioned sakura to the wide rivers that seem to run through every quaint village, Japan and its cultural symbols are in full display here. This celebration of the beauty of Japan is appeals not only to the West, which loves to drink in the exoticness of East but also to the Japanese people themselves, who love to be reminded of beautiful their country is. Keeping in line with this, its depiction of the encoffining ritual itself is considerably cleaned up, focusing primarily on the nuance and emotion of the act rather than the morbid reality of death and eventual decay. By doing so, the taboo nature of death is sidestepped and is made palatable (i.e. marketable) to the general public.

The second reason is director, Yōjirō Takita’s surprising background in sexier fare. Takita rose to popularity through a series of films called 痴漢電車 (Chikan Densha/Molester’s Train). Making such exploitative films is an apparently common way of entering the movie business here, but it also equipped Takita with a sense to appeal to a broader audience. Yes, this means that parts of the film feel artificial, more akin to a TV melodrama than a traditional “art film,” but it also imbued the film with a more earnest and tender quality that gives it its pathos.

In the film, Takita tries to examine the theme of the interplay between life and death and how it influences our kizuna—the bonds that tie people together. While Daigo’s journey can feel predictable: Of course, he will resolve his issue with his estranged father, and of course, he will perform the encoffining ritual and that the film’s version Chekov’s gun will make an appearance at the climax; as Takita reminds us too often and clumsily of these plot points, it is more of the vignettes of the different families that were healed by Daigo performing the encoffining ritual that serves as the film’s emotional core.

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Kizuna

Its original Japanese title, Okuribito, is curiously written as おくりびと, in the Japanese phonetic writing system of hiragana instead of using the kanji (Chinese derived logographic characters), as one might expect 送り人. The word 送る (okuru) means to send, escort, or dispatch, thus the title could literally mean, the one who sees people off on a journey, as one might do when you take someone to the airport. However, because it is written phonetically, it allows a wider range of interpretations, such as another homophone, 贈る (okuru), to bestow (a gift). At the intersection of these two meanings is the central image of the nōkanshi of this film—the one that accompanies dead on their final corporal journey, and by doing so bestows the gift of healing to those left behind.

These people that Daigo encounters offer a glimpse at the spectrum of social issues facing Japan and how they relate to death. These range from youth suicide accidents and teen rebellion to old age and reclusion, with even a quick nod to LGBTQ+ issues. These snippets of humanity are woven together by Daigo’s ever-deepening immersion in his vocation, wherein by dutiful care he gives to the deceased, treating them not as bodies, but as individuals with stories and life, he cuts through the filial squabbling, drawing the attention back to the loved one who was about to depart.

Through these scenes, Daigo can be seen as an observer to the human drama unfolding around him. One might even call him passive, as much of the story seems to be about things happening to Daigo (and at parts to comedic effect). However, Masahiro Motoki, who happens to be a former pop star, brings a charm, depth, and sincerity that makes Daigo not only work as a character but also allows the audience root for him.

Like most people, Daigo is a little broken. As a child, he was abandoned by his father, and as an adult has lost his job as a cellist, sells his prized cello (for which he took out an obscene loan), and has a wife that does not approve of his new career. Once he begins to wholeheartedly embrace his future as a nōkanshi, he begins to allow himself to open up to his past and is reunited with his old childhood cello. Only then is he able to make it sing once more. And in that montage of him playing on top of that levee by the river, intercut with those glimpses of those lives that he has touched and Daigo’s everyday life, that film soars to its full potential.

It is by the hands of the nōkanshi that the living are able to reconcile with the dead and the concept of death, by accepting it, the frayed bonds of kizuna can be mended.

It is at this point that others may say that it is contrived. Daigo must be a little crazy to drag that boy’s cello on top of the dike by the river to play, the use of the seasons to punctuate time is cliched, and that those tender moments between the families are overplayed.

To them, I say, you’re right.

Scenes are melodramatic, symbolisms are contrived, and the acting too broad and theatrical. And yes, the movie does not really challenge the viewer too much to dwell on the philosophical implications of death. Takita’s directorial hand is too heavy-handed in reminding us of what he wants us to think and feel.

And that’s okay.

Because instead, Takita challenges his viewers to feel. There is some truth to the idea that the Japanese are less attuned with their emotions than other people. There is much in this culture that is oft left unsaid or implied. But if they let themselves to be taken in by Motoki’s sincere performance, Hisaishi’s transportive score, then by the climax Takita will have them celebrating the entire joyously painful spectrum of human emotion.

Some Japanese may not react in the same way in real life, but within these 2 hours and 10 minutes, the film can do it for them. And that may be enough.

And if you allow yourself to shed your baggage, emotional, cultural, or artistic, you might be able to sit as I did on that plane on that fateful day I uprooted my life, Hisashi’s music soaring, and allow yourself to be transported.

Maybe then those frayed bonds, perhaps even those once cleanly severed by farewells, could be mended anew.

— EJ Legaspi

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