I have recently watched (twice this month!) the Japanese film Departures, which received the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film. Directed by Yojiro Takita, it is a deeply moving and warm-hearted film which relates a story about a young man named Daigo Kobayashi, a cellist in a Tokyo orchestra, who suddenly finds himself unemployed as the orchestra he has trained for is forced to disband. Without his wife Mika’s knowledge, he had purchased a very expensive cello (18 million yen – about $200,000!) and now unemployed, must sell the cello and locate other work.
He finds an ad in a local newspaper “Working with Departures – No Experience Necessary” and believing he is applying to work in a travel agency, his adventure begins. He is horrified to discover after he has been hired that there was a misprint in the ad – that it should have read “departed” and that he will be training to assist an encoffiner, one who ritually prepares the dead for burial. An encoffiner washes the body of the dead person and through a beautiful ceremony for the family, pays respect to who the person was and prepares them for “casketing”. Daigo is conflicted about this new job and initially does not tell anyone what he has taken on, fearing their condemnation.
In an interview with the film’s director, Yojiro Takita, he muses on the discovery of the ceremonial role that an encoffiner plays in parts of Japanese culture – and that it was mostly unknown by Japanese people until the movie brought the role to light. He said that it took 15 years to make the film due to the complexity of the subject – it is difficult to have meaningful portrayals of death in our culture, but that the film was “ultimately about the value of life and how we honor those who have passed and how we confront our own lives and the act of living.”
The film has a hauntingly beautiful cello score written by Joe Hisaishi that repeats throughout and concludes with an arrangement for 13 cellos in the finale. Classical fans will also hear a sprinkling of Bach and Brahms. Takita has said that he chose the cello and the music as it represented Daigo’s journey and the five senses to him in a particularly Japanese way.
Throughout the movie there are core themes of humility and forgiveness, also, for enjoying life and love and food and for appreciating what a person has brought to this life when they depart from us. The encoffining ceremony is seen as a source of healing and grace for family members. There are some wonderfully comic moments as well as some deeply touching ones.
The film is in Japanese with English subtitles and is rated PG 13. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I have!