My father died suddenly. I found out some days later via email, from a distant relative who had no other way of getting in contact with me. My father and I had not been close in recent years. I loved him, but he could be an impossible man, and we simply didn't know how to reach across the divide old wrongs had created and relate to each other. This made saying goodbye difficult.
In the days and weeks following his death, memories I didn't know I had came to me like things dredged up from the depths of the ocean. Some of them were trash, some were treasures. Amidst these memories, I finally found my closure. But if I could have, I think I would have availed myself of the services of the NK Agency, whose work is at the core of the lyrical Japanese drama, Departures.
I begin with these personal details not to elicit sympathy or to make this about me, but rather because I think Departures is a film that, more even than most, we see through the lens of our own experiences. It makes us reflect on our own feelings about death, and about life. I certainly couldn't help but see profound echoes of my own life in Daigo's experiences.
Daigo has always dreamed of being a cellist. But after his orchestra in Tokyo is disbanded due to a lack of funding, he must put his dream aside and get a practical job to support himself and his wife. Responding to an ad in the paper for what he believes is a travel agency, he is greeted with the world's shortest job interview.
“Will you work hard?”
What he doesn't know at that point is the boss's gift for sizing people up. The boss later tells him, “You were born to do this.” I had the feeling he'd known this since he'd first laid eyes on Daigo. When confronting people at their most vulnerable is a part of your job, it helps to be perceptive about them.
For as it turns out, NK is not a travel agency. They are an “encoffinment” service. They perform the ritual of preparing the deceased for departure from this life. The ritual is a kind of performance, and it is of course not for the benefit of the dead, but for the living. We see Daigo and the boss perform the ritual for a number of families, each grieving in their own very different way. One man pushes his grief at his wife's death down deep inside him, and struggles to maintain a facade of stone. But during the ritual, Daigo and the boss add that perfect detail the man needed to recognize his wife, to grieve and to say goodbye. In another, the encoffinment ritual offers the parents of the deceased a last chance to make up for past wrongs to their departed child by finally acknowledging the identity they had always denied her. (Yes, this hit me pretty hard.)
As Daigo and the boss went about their work, I was powerfully reminded of the pair of casualty notification service officers played by Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster in The Messenger. Their unenviable role is to deliver the shattering news that begins the grieving process, while the NK Agency offers a chance to start bringing it to a close, but both pairs see people at their most
vulnerable. Casualty notification is a terrible duty, but also, as Harrelson's character describes it, a sacred one. I think the same is true of the encoffinment service in Departures. Not everyone sees it that way, and much of the film's drama lies in Daigo's struggles to accept his new occupation, and in the ways he is shunned by some for what they view as shameful work.
Of course they don't understand the dignity in what he does. They haven't seen it. We have. And crucially, during scenes of encoffinment and throughout the film, the camera is typically still, drinking in the events in long takes that transport us, without distraction, into the homes of the bereaved, and the film's other lovely locations. At the disused coffee shop that once belonged to Daigo's father, old records line the walls, and the stillness of the camera lets us absorb the place so completely, we can almost smell the musty air and feel the weight of memory.
All of this may sound terribly serious, and in many ways it is. But just as in life, humor sometimes emerges from the most serious of circumstances, and I was repeatedly impressed by how deftly and naturally the film followed up its most heartbreaking moments with moments of quiet, honest humor.
I was surprised, after viewing the film,to see it criticized by some for its sentimentality. I have a strong distaste for calculated sentimentality, for musical flourishes during sappy moments to create a pull on the heartstrings where none has been earned. Yes, Departures is a sentimental film, but it earns its sentimentality. Its tugs on the heartstrings—and they are numerous and powerful—are rooted in truth, and the musical flourishes that punctuate one of the film's most memorable scenes come straight from Daigo's heart.
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