Departures – A Review

Departures is a movie for crying if the tears streaming down the faces of several women in the audience is any indication. While the movie is about undertakers, it is really about family and the search for the healing when a family falls apart. The film follows Daigo a cellist who is laid off from his job and takes a new job in his village of birth as an undertaker. For western audiences undertaker here means someone who washes, dresses, and makes up the body as the family watches. It is very ritualized and as they do the washing the film suggests there is not so much a closure but a briefest healing for the families. At first Daigo is the reluctant novice, but he soon learns he has a talent for the job and begins to like the ritual of it. As he begins to understand the job more and how important it is for the families to see him clean the body, his family and friends distance themselves from him. Yet he perseveres and when those same families and friends see him wash the bodies of their loved ones they understand how important he is to the process of taking care of the dead. In addition to the families who watch him work, Daigo is also trying to come to terms with his father who abandoned him when he was just a boy. It was so long ago he can not even remember him.

The power in the film is located in continual sense of healing, of the families who have been arguing about the death, suddenly seeing the loved one as they were or as the family wants to remember the loved one. The grief is naturally hard on the families but the under takers, but the ritual is calming not only in the sense that the family sees a new the loved one, but the grief becomes part of the ritual which in turn becomes part of the ritual of life. From the sense of healing Daigo and the other undertakers become part of life cycle of the town they live in and as much as the film is about the dead it is about the rituals about the every day. It is not by chance that Diago has to leave Tokyo to find the calmer rhythms of a Japan from the past. Ultimately, when Diago resolves the issues with his father not only is there the same healing for him that he has seen with the families, but the course of life has made its natural progression. To compare Departures to a Japanese tea ceromony or the care taken in flower arangements might be over stating it, but the movie leaves one with that sense of tranquility and suggest while that ritural and tranquilty may not end grief it helps.