"Departures": Departures from Life to Death By Ossama A. Rezk

in 31st Montreal World Film Festival

by Ossama Rezk

On the border of life and death, a dangerous yet interesting place, is where the Japanese fiction film Departures (Okuribito) is situated. Directed by Yojiro Takita (2008), it is the winner of the Grand Prize of the Americas in the 32nd edition of the World Film Festival in Montreal.

Takita, best known for his comic coming-of-age films, manages to keep his sense of humor in this movie despite its gloomy theme. It is quite astonishing that one could laugh in the face of death and in presence of corpses. I believe this paradox stems from the contradiction between the world of art, music and imagination in which the main character, the young cellist Daigo lives, and the real world of truth and death he is suddenly drawn in.

Once happily married, he finds himself in the street without a job and with no hope for a career since the orchestra, which he plays for, has been disbanded. He decides to move back to his hometown with his wife, but the only job he gets is that of a “nokanshi”, an undertaker, although not an ordinary one. He has to perform the ritual of washing, dressing and making up the corpses before putting them in coffins. He has time to contemplate the faces of the dead and to learn a lot, not only about death, but also about life itself. He becomes, in a way, a gatekeeper at the door separating life from death. This unique opportunity, yet despised by his wife and everyone around him, paves the way for him to grow up and change. It is through the death he encounters daily that he finally begins to understand what life is all about.

It is also through death that he is finally reconciled with his father, after spending all his life blaming him for abandoning the family when he was just a kid. He accepts to prepare his father’s corpse for the last trip, and during the procedure, he finds himself able to forgive… and love. This is what this moving picture is all about. Until our own “departure” occurs, we must undertake to “send off” many of those whom we love and cherish. Humbled by these major truths, we must disregard any differences and any hatred. Departures is also about accepting death, not only as a sole true fact of life, but also as a normal occurrence. The crew does a terrific job in trying to erase the fear of death from the hearts of their viewers and in making them think that maybe they don’t have to worry about it as much as they do. In a key scene, while enjoying their meal, Daigo is told by his boss: “It’s normal, the living eat the dead”. In another key scene they are at the table again, eating — almost devouring — chicken, with great appetite. I liked the way the director focused on the chicken bones, trying — in a way — to tell us: “Well, there’s no big difference. This is the fate of all flesh and we have to accept it”.

This is a film that makes you love life while at the same time accepting death. It is intriguing and artistically very clever in spite of the corpses it shows most of the time. My only reservation is that it was a little bit long. It would have been more powerful and more effective if the director had chosen to omit some of the “undertaking” scenes, bearing in mind that some of them were repetitive and static.