Story: Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a cellist and has finally gotten a seat in an orchestra when the band is suddenly dissolved.
Being disappointed he decides to quit his career and go back to his hometown since he has inherited a house from his mother there. His wife
Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) supports him with his decision and so Daigo starts to look for a new job. In a newspaper he finds an ad that makes him
believe that there is a job opening at a travel agency. During his job interview he finds out that his future boss Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) is
preparing the dead for their last journey, though. This is how Daigo becomes a coffinman who sees off the dead according to traditional ceremony.
At first he can't imagine to be doing this job but after some time he discovers tranquility and peace in this work and also learns to cherish life in
a new way. However, his profession isn't really a respected one which is also why he didn't even tell his wife about it. When she finally finds out
about it, it seems as if he would have to choose between her or his job.
Review: The international success of "Departures" is due to its nomination at the Academy Awards where the drama around a mortician won the
prize for "Best Foreign Movie". Of course, you don't have to think much of that and in fact this information made me look at the film from a
more critical point of view because such award wins are only seldomly justified. But it remains without question that Yojiro Takita's movie,
apart from a few moments at the end which can easily feel a bit too sentimental, is worthwhile thanks to its special atmosphere and characters.
The at first glance grotesque story instantly unfolds its special appeal and enchants with its tranquil and peaceful moments without the humor
falling by the wayside. These moments bestow a certain depth upon the movie and give the drama a special impact that you can't elude. Even though
"Departures" may deal with death it actually focuses on life through it and thus creates a warmth that can be moving and puts a smile on your
face at the same time.
Director Yojiro Takita could already create a moving drama with "When the Last Sword is Drawn" and this time proves that he can avoid some of his former mistakes, although strangely he still seems to be clinging to others. Because actually there is only one weakness in "Departures" and that is the rather too emotionally manipulative ending that clearly tries too hard to move to tears with its many cuts on the face of Daigo and his wife Mika as well as a soundtrack that forces itself into the foreground a bit too much. And this even though going down this much used and corny path is actually beneath Takita. Because the truly touching moments are to be found during small scenes. When for the first time Daigo is reluctantly watching his boss doing the ritual washing and clothing while doing this with such precision, care and sereness that he instantly feels the inner tranquility and mental peace that goes along with this profession the viewer will feel a shiver running down its spine.
It's about death and departures and in fact you get the impression that the dead are getting prepared to go on a journey. The ceremonies held to see off the dead have a certain beauty to them which can even make you feel embarrased how we westerners are dealing with the deceased. Main actor Masahiro Motoki learnt every single move that he is required to do perfectly in this movie beforehand and it shows. The secureness and perfection with which he washes the dead in front of the eyes of family members without ever showing them any square centimeter of the deceased's skin and the sophisticated way to take off the clothes of the dead without ever violating reverence in any way is impressive. It's as if attending a tea ceremony. That you get to see something this beautiful under the given circumstances is something outstanding and the magic that is inherent in this profession is soon touching a string in Daigo that makes him realize that it is his fate and calling to learn the trade from his boss until he has mastered it to perfection.
The many ceremonies never get boring and they also aren't just there to lay open the sorrow of the relatives. Oftentimes there are tears rolling, but most of the time there is also warmth to be found in these send-offs, because to say goodbye also means to see someone a last time and to be able to let go. Daigo on the other hand was able to find his place in society this way. It's almost as if from some point onward something exalted is surrounding him, as with a guardian that is escorting the dead into the afterlife. His profession isn't really approved by his friends or his wife, yes it even seems as if he would lose his wife because of it, but those who see him at work are getting a completely new picture of his job and the audience eventually has to realize that the traditional way of entombing is actually an art form. An art form which origin is an old buddhist tradition and centers around respect for the dead. An art form that is getting more and more uncommon and is almost only executed in rural areas nowadays.
The film is loosely based on the story of "Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician" by Aoki Shinmon and director Takita is putting great effort into drawing the characters accordingly well. Apart from Masahiro Motoki, who also learnt to play cello for the movie, Ryoko Hirosue is also delivering a nice performance as his wife who always supports him with his decisions until he becomes a coffinman as well as Tsutomu Yamazaki as the quiet, odd, but loveable boss who puts Daigo on the right track. Besides them there are also supporting characters who all enrich the movie and make things more lively. What's also suprising is that the movie despite a running time of 130 minutes doesn't feel lengthy at all. The warm drama is loosened up by some funny scenes which interestingly don't feel out of place in any way. The beautiful soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi is adding to the special atmosphere of the movie and serves as a fitting musical background to the warm pictures. "Departures" isn't as lengthy as similar dramas and most of all has some interesting characters and a good story in store which focuses on life through a closer look at death. A wonderful movie that more than anything else satisfies thanks to its mood.