Departures is a magazine about exceptional places, people, and things for American Express Platinum Card® and Centuri…erm…oh, wait. Nevermind, this is a movie about preparing dead people for their coffins.
Available in Canada, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and perhaps a few other countries. Approximately 131 minutes.
Uh…Are we in Fargo? This right here is the color of death.
Kobayashi Daigo had been living in Tokyo, but moved back home to Yamagata (250 miles away) two months ago and…has not been enjoying it. He thinks that winters were not as cold when he was a child. He was a cellist in an orchestra while in Tokyo. And now…? He helps to prepare bodies for cremation.
This is the funeral for Tomeo. This time Daigo quietly notes that the body looks alive. His boss, Sasaki, deduces that she committed suicide by charcoal, due to there being no signs of agony. Ah…like in that scene in Squid Game. Daigo thinks it is too bad that she died; she was beautiful. Come on, dude, you are being quiet, but not that quiet. Sasaki asks if Daigo wants to do it. Do…oh, the actual rites. Yeah, sure. He tells the funeral attendees that the rite of encoffinment is to prepare the deceased for a peaceful departure, and tells them to come closer to watch as he adjusts her face and arms. After being so sad, they all seem more curious.
Daigo then does…something with the sheet and robe before wiping down the body under the…robe. He stops when he finds that she has…a…thing. Well…um…movie? Ahem…well, Daigo gives the cloth to Sasaki, who takes up the wiping of the…thing…well, that seems unprofessional on Daigo’s part. He gives the cloth back to Daigo and goes to the…uncle? And asks if he wants them to apply makeup for women or men to Tomeo. He then asks his sister. She…doesn’t really provide an answer, wishing that she had had Tomeo as a girl in the beginning. Her husband stares at her silently. Well, in any case, girl makeup. With that settled, Daigo and Sasaki proceed.
Well…uh…that is one way to start a movie. Trans Visibility Day was how long ago? Well…at least the parents respected their…Oh, dagnabbit. Sorry.
Aaaanyways, flashback to Tokyo. Here is Daigo playing the cello. At a concert…that is half-full at most.
Daigo says that they should probably advertise more. Perhaps his wife could help; she designs websites. Nevermind, the owner dissolved the orchestra. Everyone else starts packing up, but Daigo just stands there in shock. From his voiceover, it seems like he just recently got the job and bought the cello.
Daigo’s wife Mika returns to find him moping. Trying to retain her cheery mood, she tells him that he will find another job. He says that there won’t be one; he is just not good enough. And he is in debt due to the cello. Mika tries to assure him that she can pay off…18 million yen? That is like 134,000 USD. He had, apparently, kept the true cost from her, fearing that she would say no. And now…
Mika had gotten some octopus from a neighbor and goes to prepare it for dinner. OH, it’s alive. Well…neither Mika nor Daigo want to kill it. So, they go to the river and Daigo throws it in. After a few seconds, he says that he should quit playing cello and go back to Yamagata. Mika seems unsure, but wills herself to cheerfully agree. Daigo is surprised that she is so willing to go, but she says that they can live free in the house that his mother left him.
Daigo sells the cello, telling himself that he is freed from ties that had bound him for so long. He thought that it was his dream, but perhaps it wasn’t.
Daigo and Mika go to Yamagata…to the house. His father had run it as a coffeeshop…and then left. Daigo’s mother raised him alone, and turned the coffeeshop into a bar. And she lived there until she died two years earlier. And now he and his wife are here.
At dinner, Daigo expresses surprised that Mika likes it in Yamagata; he had worried that she would hate it. But she says that everything seems new. Really? Here? In the middle of nowhere? Well, we have seen her be almost nothing but cheerful. She says that she might even open a shop. Daigo looks at the paper and sees and ad for…an NK agent. No age restriction, good salary, full-time, short hours, no experience required. What is an NK agent? An NK agent work with departures. Like a travel agent? A tour guide? Maybe a ferryman, amirite? Anyways, Daigo says that he will give them a call.
Well…I would think that a travel agency would look a little more inviting.
The secretary, Yuriko, seems surprised to see Daigo, even though he had called earlier. Perhaps she did not realize that he was serious. Anyways, she tells him that he can sit and wait for the boss to get back. He looks around and…uh…yeah, those things don’t look like things for globe-trotting.
Yuriko says that she was against the boss putting an ad in the paper, as it was unlikely that they would find anyone for this work. Daigo asks what the work is. Yuriko seems surprised again. Daigo mentions the “departures” phrase. She smiles and drinks some tea.
Oh, here is the boss. Sasaki has Yuriko make some tea as he sits down with Daigo for an interview. Daigo gives Sasaki his resume, which Sasaki does not read. He asks Daigo if he will work hard. Daigo says yes. So, he is hired. Oh, what is his name? Kobayashi Daigo. Sasaki tells Yuriko to give Daigo some cards. Daigo is bewildered. What about salary? Okay, what does he want? 50,000 yen? Sasaki says 500. 500,000 YEN?? In cash if Daigo wants it. Is it too low? What does the job even involve? Come on, Daigo, did you not see those three white things? They put corpses into coffins. Daigo is shocked. He thought that it was a travel agency because of the departures. Oh, that was a typo. It should have said the departed. NK means nokan: casketing. Sasaki tells him to give it a try, and that he can quit at every time. Well, not today, as Sasaki pushes that day’s pay into Daigo’s hands. Daigo seems trapped. Yuriko is highly amused.
Mika is overjoyed when Daigo brings home some expensive beef. He says that he got an advance. So, he got the job? Sort of. Daigo is really evasive when describing the job, saying only ceremonies. Like weddings?
It is the next day and Daigo actually returns to NK Agent. Yuriko is dusting the coffins and gives him a smirk. She says that he can use Sasaki’s desk until his own desk arrives, hands him a box of business cards before, and goes back to dusting the coffins. Daigo cannot help but stare at the coffins, which gets Yuriko looking at him funny some more. He explains that he has never seen a coffin before, as his grandparents died before he remembered, he was abroad when his mother died, and his father had left when he was six. He wonders if a person who had never seen a corpse could do this job. Yuriko tells him that he will get used to it. To corpses? Yes.
Yuriko says that there are fewer jobs now in the summer, but it will pick up in later seasons. It used to be that families took care of the bodies, but as they started hiring undertakers, undertakers started hiring nokan companies. Daigo helps her to put the lids on the coffins, noting that they are heavy. Yuriko tells him that the one on the left is 50,000 yen, the middle is 100,000 yen, and the right one is 300,000 yen. Of course, there is a difference in fanciness, even though she says that they all burn in the same ash. Your last purchase, and someone else chooses it. Daigo says that that is ironic and Yuriko agrees.
Yuriko answers the phone. It is Sasaki, and he wants Daigo to go to the Minatoza. A job. On his second day on the job. Really? I know that the ad said that no experience was required, but surely he needs some training, right? Well, whatever. So, Daigo makes his way to the Minatoza Theater and…oh what the hell is this? Sasaki tells what looks like a film crew that Daigo (Sasaki didn’t remember his name) will be the model today. The model? As in the corpse? Well, he needs to get changed and get makeup. I don’t know if any of them realize or care that Daigo seems to have no idea what this was supposed to be.
The model is ready. The model is ready? Are we sure about that? He doesn’t seem ready. Daigo asks Sasaki where this video will be shown. Sasaki tells him that it is only for trade, no one will see it. The heck does that mean?
Filming starts. Daigo struggles to remain stiff and still as Sasaki moves him around and wipes him down. At the very least, this film can serve as instructions for him and acting as the model may help him understand his job from the other side…so to speak. It kind of is training of sorts. Sasaki starts shaving him and…oops, he cut Daigo. Well, maybe he would not have gotten cut if he had not moved, as corpses are not supposed to move. Then again, corpses don’t usually react to getting shaving cream in their nostrils either.
Daigo returns home and…Mika is actually not smiling. She asks what happened to his face. He tells her that his boss wanted his face shaved. So…he shaved at work? He tells her that it is just a scratch. That was…not how he reacted when it happened. She tells him that it is weird and he agrees.
First actual job. Daigo is extremely nervous, but Sasaki tells him that he can just watch this time. That’s nice. Except that Sasaki says that he picked a bad one. Daigo asks what that means, but Sasaki says that he will see. When they arrive at the place, the undertaker tells Sasaki that the deceased is an elderly lady who had lived alone and has been dead for two weeks.
The two go inside and Daigo struggles with the smell, and the flies…and the maggots…and whatever he just stepped in. Sasaki seems to be okay with all of it. He pulls back the blanket that covers the body and…Daigo can barely look. Sasaki tells him to grab her legs. Daigo reminds Sasaki that he said that he could just watch. That is true, but Daigo has not done a very good job watching. He also starts retching as he gets to her feet. The scene cuts before we see him actually vomit.
Back at the office, Daigo is in a daze until Sasaki hands him some cash and tells him to take the day off, recognizing that that was a bit much for his first job. At least Yuriko is looking at him with something resembling sympathy, instead of just a smirk.
With nothing to do and in no mood to do anything, Daigo rides the bus. A trio of schoolgirls are talking about…I am not sure…until they start noticing a smell. They realize that it is coming from Daigo. Getting a little self-conscious, he exits the bus at the next stop.
Daigo makes his way to a public bath that he remembers from when he was young. Some elderly man tells him that it is 300 yen for a bath, with another 100 for a towel. Okay. And…oh, he is serious about getting all of the stink out. At least he takes a relaxing bath after all of that scrubbing.
Daigo is done and maybe about to leave when he runs into an old friend, Yamashita, whose mother runs the bathhouse. They are both surprised to see him back, still thinking that he plays in the orchestra. He doesn’t correct them, especially when the little girl Shiori seems impressed, and the mother takes the opportunity to compare her son to him unfavorably.
Back at home, Miko seems like she can tell that something is wrong with Daigo. But he says that everything is fine, so she doesn’t push it. But then she shows him the raw chicken that their neighbor has given them, head and all. There is also a fly flying around it. That is too much for Daigo and he runs to the kitchen sink to gag. Well, now she asks what’s wrong. He doesn’t answer, but embraces her…and starts pulling at her clothes and…um…I am not entirely sure what he is doing, but it is making her quite uncomfortable. She asks him to not do this here now in the kitchen…but I guess that she acquiesces. And…starts smiling again? I don’t know.
That night, Daigo starts to wonder if his current predicament is punishment for his not taking care of his mother or even being there for her funeral. He then gets the urge to play cello again. Of course, he had sold his cello, but he finds the one from his childhood. It is so small that I am not sure how that even counts as a cello. It is also a little busted and there is some sheet music wrapped around a…rock? Well, anyways, he restrings the cello and manages to play it. It sounds good to me.
While playing Daigo remembers being a child playing this cello for his parents. He remembers when they took him to the water. He and his father picked up rocks and exchanged them. It was his father who gave him that rock. Daigo remembers that. He cannot remember his father’s face. It is blurry.
Daigo is standing on a bridge observing salmon swimming against the current. A couple of them die and get pushed back. The elderly man from the bath house is walking by and stops to see what he is looking at. Daigo points to the fish and specifically the dead ones. He says that it is a shame for them to struggle to come all this distance just to die. The man says that they want to return to where they were born. Then he continues walking, leaving Daigo to stew in that metaphor.
Daigo is sitting by the river when Sasaki drives by. He honks at Daigo and says that they should go eat. Daigo, probably not expecting to see him, asks why he took this road. Fate? Yeah right. Sasaki says that Daigo was born to do this. Daigo is unhappy, but he goes. I don’t know if they eat, but they do drive to the funeral of Naomi…arriving five minutes late. Sasaki apologizes to the husband of the deceased, who is…not happy. Regardless, Sasaki gets to work.
Again, Daigo observes as Sasaki wipes down Naomi’s body changes her, arranges her hands, and applies makeup so that she looks more similar to the portrait. Sasaki asks for her favorite lipstick. Naomi’s husband seems confused, but her daughter goes to get it, and Sasaki applies it. Daigo notes that Sasaki is restoring a cold body to beauty for all eternity; and he does it with calmness, precision, and gentle affection. Then it is time to lower the deceased into her coffin, and Daigo rolls up the extra sheets. Daigo and Sasaki join in on the prayer over the coffin. Sasaki is about to affix the lid, but gives the husband some time as he finally cries over her body.
Daigo and Sasaki are leaving when the husband…well, widower, stops them. He apologizes for acting so short with them before, but Sasaki notes that they were late. In any case, the widower hands Sasaki a gift, notes that Naomi had never looked so beautiful, and then thanks them.
Motoki Masahiro, who plays Daigo, had become interested in death ceremonies since witnessing one when he visited India in the early 1990s. He read many books about death ceremonies, including Aoki Shinmon’s autobiographical Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician. He had originally conceived this movie as being an adaptation of that book, and several elements do remain, but it…well…ended up departing greatly from the book…enough to irk the author a bit. Still, Motoki was adamant in getting the process right, observing and practicing much much much more than Yamazaki Tsutomu, who played Sasaki. It may seem somewhat ironic, as Sasaki was meant to be the expert veteran, but it does make sense in the sense that this was Motoki’s passion project.
With subject matter like this, one might expect that it would be a straightforward drama. And it eventually becomes this sort of, but it starts out as a low-key comedy drama. And, yes, the first sign of that is the “surprise” that a dead person is transgender…or a transvestite; we do not get the whole story. But we do sort of get a little more of the story later on…sort of?
That may seem like a rather rough way to start the movie, but it does help to serve the one facet of the movie’s point. Everyone deserves dignity. Not everyone is provided dignity in life or lived a life of dignity. But encoffinment is an attempt to provide the dead with dignity in their final moments before they fully disappear. We see that encoffinment is not always applied, with the deceased just lifted up and put into the coffin. I gather that this particular practice is not too common, and is mostly confined to rural areas. In the case of this movie, it is a service used by the undertaker, not the family. It might be that the family was not expecting this and may resent any extra expenses. However, if they let the encoffinment take place…and actually cooperate…then they may be able to view the deceased as they seemed in life, as they had maybe wished to appear before whatever took them. In giving the deceased a level of peace that was not given in life, some of that peace is given to those left behind.
Of course, all of that depends on the story of the deceased, and certain key details may not be available to Sasaki and Daigo before the ritual. That is the case in that first scene, and it leads to some…awkwardness. The rituals are meant to provide dignity to the deceased, but that requires there to be rules based on some sort of traditional precedent. And, despite encoffinment being meant to cover all sorts of funeral types, sometimes the rules do not necessarily account for certain scenarios. However, the rules are not totally inflexible, and there are ways to allow for inclusivity, as long as they know what is needed. Technically, I gather that the rules are not set in iron, as professional encoffinment is a somewhat new thing. Now, there may not be a hard set of clear-cut rules to follow, but one at least needs to maintain a sense of precedent. I mean…I don’t know.
I gather that family members were traditionally supposed to perform the acts of encoffinment. But at some point, more and more people started to pull away from the ritual, leading to the rise of professional encoffinment. Some say that it was modern life itself that separated the families from the traditions of death rituals, and that people like Sasaki are carrying on those traditions within the context of modern society, filling the space left by that spiritual loss. But I am also reading that the practice of dealing with the dead was traditionally done by people who were considered the lowest of the low; untouchables. And that is the attitude that we see on the film; if in a less harsh form. I mean, I don’t know; I suppose that both could be true, even if they seem to be contradictory. Some critics seemed to take the attitudes that some of the characters take to death as a sign of the Japanese deep respect for the dead, which is a bit odd, as that was definitely not the case for many in the film. At the same time, there are others who claim that even the small level of respect occasionally shown to Daigo and Sasaki was fantastical.
While Daigo and Sasaki perhaps should have applied “female” makeup to Tomeo. regardless, Sasaki did consult with the parents (well, the uncle) out of a desire to truly get it right. Ironically, in asking them, he was trying to treat Tomeo in death with more respect and affection than they did in life. And in treating it as a professional matter, he forced the parents (especially the father) to finally come to terms with their feelings towards what was going on with Tomeo and perhaps their own complicity in what led to Tomeo’s death. They were too late to get there when it really mattered, but perhaps they can now. I mean maybe; it is unclear if their epiphany matched how their child had been feeling. So, though I am not going to argue that the movie treated that issue as well as it maybe should have, it was not meant to be a simple crude joke. That said, we don’t really see either Sasaki or Daigo wipe down bodies that are not pretty, young, and feminine, except for that filming sequences that was played for laughs. Take that as you will.
But…why have so much comedic elements in the first place for a movie with such grim subject matter? Well, because the makers know that this is probably an uncomfortable subject for the audience. Death can seem disturbing and disgusting. Indeed, as important as death rituals are in Japan, dealing with the dead is considered unclean. There are, supposedly, major purifying rituals that such people are meant to go through after dealing with the deceased. We do not really see Sasaki or Daigo do any sort of purifying ritual beyond Daigo’s desperate impromptu session at the bathhouse. But, even without the smell, people in that line of work are considered unclean, and their work is not considered proper work. The subject matter was so taboo that it took a good ten years for this project to be made. While Aoki may have objected to some of the changes made, such as the toning down of the more graphic elements, such compromises may have been necessary for the project to get off the ground in the first place. Yeah, who would have thought that the land of seppuku and self-grenading would be touchy about death? But if that is how it is, then that is how it is. Killing and dying may be easy, but the dead is difficult.
This is the mindset that the audience is expected to hold, and the movie accepts this by infusing humor to offset the discomfort. It also acknowledges this mindset by having Daigo be a somewhat extreme version; someone who has had no remembered experience with dead people before. There is humor in him stumbling into this work by accident and Sasaki masking his desperation to keep Daigo from quitting. But it is an acknowledgment that few would take such work, even ones more familiar with death. Daigo’s disgust and horror mirror the audience’s feelings. And they understand his shame in interacting with his wife. As accommodating as she may be, it is clear that her cheerful smile is a façade, one that she is better at maintaining than he is. She wants to act as the supportive wife, but he knows that there is a limit. He feared that when he bought his expensive cello and he fears it now.
I am sure that some audience members just going through the 2008 Economic Everything would relate to a guy who was laid off and is desperate for work. So desperate that he accepts a job without actually knowing what it is. But no one would take such a job. Daigo would not have had he known what it actually was. Through trickery, appeal to seniority, and advance payments so advance that they come across as bribery, Sasaki is able to keep Daigo from quitting, even through the indignity of the video shoot and the particularly horrible death scene. It is a bit of a gauntlet. As said before, the audience is spared most of the graphic stuff, but Daigo is not. He has to go through the worst to get to the…erm…other side.
The disgust, horror, humiliation, shame, and trauma that Daigo feels from his experience prevents him from telling anyone what his new job is. It is not until he sees the process done fully that he starts to realize the significance. He and Sasaki arrive late for Naomi’s funeral, which puts them in a bad spot with the husband. Yet, Sasaki turns it around almost immediately, by restoring Naomi’s body to how it looked before. Sure, it is all cosmetic, but there is meaning behind it, respect. And, as Daigo notes, gentle affection. He sees how serious Sasaki takes it, and he sees how it affects the others at the funeral, especially Naomi’s daughter and husband. He starts seeing the process as not simply gross and horrific, but dignified and deep.
The movie took a rather artistic, universal, and humanistic approach to the practice, only briefly touching on the religious significance of anything that was going on. The author was definitely not happy about such a central part of his book being downplayed to the point of near nonexistence, but it did sort of reflect how the Japanese public was turning more and more agnostic. That may imply that they would have less respect for such rituals, but the movie presents the rituals as being significant in and of themselves, as well as having the family members find significance from what they see. Is that unrealistic? Maybe. I cannot really say.
I believe that the cello stuff was not in the original book. I am not sure what the reasoning was, but Motoki was about as serious in learning to play the cello as he was learning encoffinment. It has been said that the cello kind of resembles the human body, and so playing the cello takes a similar sort of intimate precision that encoffinment does. Yeah, maybe. I will say that the introduction of Daigo as a cellist stands in rather stark contrast to encoffinment work. At the start, he is part of an orchestra playing one of the particularly loud parts of the Ode to Joy to half an audience. With encoffinment, it is meant to be quiet, slow, gentle, intimate, personal, and somber. Basically, nothing like the Ode to Joy. Instead of Daigo being part of an orchestra, it is just him and Sasaki for the most part. Sometimes only one of them. It also takes a little bit of improvisation and interaction with family members who may not necessarily be cooperative. So, sure, there are similarities, but also differences.
What is the cello for Daigo? We learn later that it was something that his father wanted him to learn…before abandoning him and his mother. Yet, Daigo kept at it for however many years. It became part of his identity. And, just like that, it was taken from him. His former colleagues seemed like they would try to find another orchestra or do something else, but Daigo was lost…and probably in debt, due to foolishly purchasing a cello that was beyond his means. But, just like that. It was no more. His community was gone. And himself was gone. Only his wife remained. Still, he convinced himself that it was for the better. This was his father’s dream, not his. But, of course, he does not completely give up cello-playing, as we see when he finds his old child-sized cello. In fact, as he starts to become more comfortable with the rituals of encoffinment, the montage of his growth is mixed in with him playing the cello. He has not simply found another job, but he has found a different purpose, a different meaning in his life, a new identity, a new self. It does not necessarily replace who he was, but adds and compliments.
Encoffinment itself seems like a rather quiet and serious procedure. And that appears to fit Daigo well. Sure, that could apply to cello-playing, but not necessarily, as we see in the introduction to his cello-playing. He was in a group, playing loudly. He was part of something bigger than himself. But he seems to be a lonely figure, not a part of something, but apart from everything. Despite his discomfort towards death, perhaps encoffinment suits his personality more immediately. It is slow and stoic, like him. Daigo kind of fits that trope of a man who keeps everything wrapped up and hidden. We know that he is full of emotions, but he is wary of showing others, even his wife. Perhaps especially his wife. Mika frequently notes that he is unsettled and asks him if he is all right. He says yes and she knows better than to pry further, knowing that he is probably wrestling with the truth. At the same time, Mika projects a cheery exterior that masks her own doubts and discomfort. Daigo asks her if she is all right. She says yes and he knows better to pry further, fearing what would happen if she were to air her true feelings. But just like encoffinment can bring out the emotions of family members, it can reveal emotional truths from Daigo and Mika.
Daigo’s initial attempts at performing encoffinment himself are not due to him volunteering, but they simply happen because Sasaki is busy elsewhere. Oddly enough, the movie chooses not to show his first time, but it does show his second time. Boy does it. He is not a natural. He has to work at it. And he does. He does get good at it. And it starts to come naturally to him. He does face societal prejudice against his line of work, but by the time it hits him directly, he is already committed to the work. He is still rather private about his job and the disdain does affect him, but not enough to make him quit; a huge turnaround from those first few days.
Just as getting this movie made was difficult, getting it distributed in Japan seemed near impossible. It took getting the grand prize at the Montreal World Film Festival to finally get a domestic release. It opened in fifth place and to mostly positive reviews. Some did feel like it was a little too predictable and sentimental, but people were really touched. It ended up being Japan’s highest grossing domestic film of 2008. Additionally, there was a manga adaptation written around the same time as the production, along with a novelization. About a year and a half after the release, there was a stageplay…sequel…? The success of the movie even provided a boost in interest in encoffinment. I am not sure if this was mostly from foreigners or Japanese people themselves. That does seem a little morbid, but it is a far cry from the discriminatory avoidance that had this movie be so difficult to make in the first place. Perhaps in relating to Daigo, audiences went on a similar journey with him and came out the other side.
Yes, this movie is sentimental. Yes, this movie sometimes takes easy shortcuts. Yes, it sidesteps some of the more graphic parts of death for the sake of displaying beauty. Look, there are plenty of Takashi Miike films that you can watch if you want to see disgusting death. If you want respectful, calm, sympathetic, and moving, go with this.
WTF ASIA 260: Once Upon a Time in China (Hong Kong: 1991, approx. 135 minutes)
Available in France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and perhaps a few other countries…wait…NOT the United States? His 60th birthday is on the 26th of April. What is this nonsense?
WTF ASIA 261: The Fortress (South Korea: 2017, approx. 139 minutes)
Available in Australia, Canada, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States, and perhaps a few other countries.