Monday, October 10, 2016

Picks from Chip: Departures (Okuribito)

Film: Departures (Okuribito)
Format: DVD from Moline Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

This is the tenth in a series of twelve movies suggested by Chip Lary.

I’m not the sort of person who thinks that everything happens for a reason, or that there is some sort of guiding force behind everything that happens in our lives. No, events just happen, and this means that sometimes we get wonderful little coincidences or confluences that give us insight or that allow us to project meaning on the events that we experience. When Chip and I exchanged movie lists about nine or ten months ago, I had no idea that 2016 would be a year that ended without Chip in it. I also had no idea that he would give me Departures (Okuribito) to watch. It feels appropriate, because Departures is about death and about saying goodbye.

Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a cellist living and working in Tokyo with his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue). Then, one day the man who funds the orchestra pulls the plug and Daigo is without a job and owing about 18 million yen on his cello. With no prospects and keenly aware that he probably isn’t good enough to land in another orchestra, Daigo and Mika move to his home town where he has a house that he inherited from his mother when she died several years previously.

While Daigo and Mika aren’t desperate for money right away, Daigo starts looking for a job and locates one that looks interesting. The pay is good, the hours are decent, and the ad claims that it deals with “departures.” Thinking it’s some sort of travel agency Daigo goes to the interview and is offered the job immediately. Only then does he discover what the job actually entails. He and his boss, Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) perform encoffining ceremonies. He also admits to a typo in the ad; “departures” was supposed to be “departed.”

Essentially, when someone dies, it is the job of Daigo and his boss to ritually bathe and dress the body in preparation for cremation. The ceremony is shown to us several times, and it’s a truly beautiful thing. There is a great deal of respect for the body and for the person who has died. It is more interesting to me that the family of the departed sits and watches the entire procedure. The encoffiners work to keep everything professional and respectful. Both Daigo and Ikuei treat their “clients” with utmost care. It’s quite lovely, really.

This doesn’t sound like there would be much of a movie here based on that, but there is always some level of stigma attached to anyone who works with the dead. In Japan, that stigma is far more significant, creating a class of people who are entirely necessary in the society but who are (or were) essentially the equivalent of the Untouchables in the Indian caste system. In fact, one of Daigo’s old friends shuns him publically because of his new job (especially since his old job was playing in a symphony), and when she discovers what he does, Mika leaves and returns to Tokyo. She does come back eventually, telling Daigo that she is pregnant, and wanting him to leave his job because she wants their child to be able to have pride in what Daigo does.

I won’t spoil the end here, but I will say a few things. First, the ending is a bit predictable. Second, I didn’t really care. It’s more or less the ending I wanted and felt like the characters deserved. Sure, I could see it a mile away, but I bought it entirely because I wanted to. Third, the film goes on a little long. I get why it does, but there are a few moments toward the end that we don’t really need. If Departures had a good 10 minutes removed from the last 30 (the right 10 minutes, at least), the film wouldn’t suffer, and might well be improved a touch.

But that’s a quibble, because I don’t really have a lot negative to say here. I’m unfamiliar with the work of Masahiro Motoki and Ryoko Hirosue, but I would like to see more of them. They are both excellent here, and Hirosue is adorable. No, the really wonderful thing here is the rediscovery of Tsutomu Yamazaki, who I recognized immediately as Goro from Tampopo. He looks like a 20-year older version of Goro. I love him in that, and I love him here. He has the same sort of commanding presence on the screen, a sort of quiet gravitas, as someone like David Gulpilil. There’s something about him that makes everything that much more serious and real.

I still miss Chip. I miss the comments and the agreements and disagreements. I miss having the guy around to talk to and to bounce ideas off of. I miss just how much he knew. But Departures feels like a gift, like a way to say goodbye to someone who needed more of a sendoff than I could give him. Departures feels like how we should say goodbye—with respect and love.

I’m sure this is partly the situation speaking and partly the events of this year, but this is the best thing Chip has asked me to watch.

Why to watch Departures: It’s one of the most beautiful meditations on death and saying goodbye that you’ll ever find.
Why not to watch: It could use 10 minutes removed from the last half hour.


  1. I liked this movie a whole lot for all the reasons you stated. And I agree. It is a beautiful reminder of Chip.

    1. Honestly, I think this is one that should be on the 1001 Movies list, and I'm a little surprised it's not.