If I die, throw me into the gutter. I do not care. Departures shows the system undertaker’s go through, and it looks like an incredible hassle for everyone involved. The dead included. Sling me into the bin, fire me out of a cannon or throw me into the sea. Honestly, whatever is easiest. I’m not sure how legally binding this document is to my professed wishes, but what I will say is that Departures does a great job of dealing with its themes of mortality, a delicate offering from director Yojiro Takita. He does more than bin the bodies of those that have passed to the great beyond. Takita shows more the impact working so closely with these cold cadavers has on an individual than anything else. It is the departures themselves that take centre stage, those around them are merely expressions of pain and anguish.
Death appears so formal, reserved and sombre in this fantastic Japanese drama, but that is far from the reality. Tears are spilt, arguments are heard, but at the core of it all, Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is present. He is not the grim reaper but has the same atmosphere as the black-robed figure of death. He pours over those mired by grief, attending the deaths and rites of those he buries and blesses. It looks like horrid work, and clearly, Kobayashi is out of his depth. Aren’t we all, though? We can only survive so long in life without interacting with something that disturbs or disgusts us. There are plenty of scenes that do just that in Departures, the arrival at the house of an old woman who passed away a fortnight ago is one such instance. But the heavy-handed comedy that features just before and the reactions and acting of Motoki leave much to be desired.
Musicianship is rather poetic, especially orchestra. The music is the narrative weaver, and seeing a cellist work his way through the world of death is an exceptional premise. Departures does not do all that much to establish Kobayashi, outside of explaining he is hit with the grief of his orchestra disbanding. We all flow through different levels of grief, and the death of his career sees new life and direction for Kobayashi. “I should have realised the limit to my talent sooner,” he narrates. His thoughts hit too close to home for me, and he is thankfully interrupted by his dinner, still alive. Throwing an octopus back into the water has more comedic value than it should, but Departures wrangles the dramatics out of it, displaying the indignity of death, and how it is unavoidable.
Inevitably, a film about death is about life. Departures may surround itself with those leaving this mortal coil, but it is more focused on those living few that cater to the final deeds of the dead. Nōkanshi may not have caught on in the western world, but its place in Japanese culture and the heritage behind it provides a nice enough backdrop for the events of Departures. Its leading man is a tremendous let-down, though, and Takita struggles to find a sensible, consistent narrative style. He bounces between light notes of humour and heavy pangs of drama without a moment to lose. Such a disparity, what a waste.