As Asian moviegoers heartily laughed at moments and situations which seemed unhumorous to this frequent denizen of the cinema, the thought crystallized with utmost exactitude, swiftly appearing like a person who had been interminably sitting alongside you for so long that they had gradually dissolved for an inestimable period of time. With exponential fierceness, the voluminous gamut the mind so meticulously runs through was conquered. Departures, directed by Yojiro Takita from a screenplay by Kundo Kayama, is a firmly Nipponese dramatic journal detailing the wistful hope of compromise between a culture's deeply ingrained stigmas of death and its own duteous veneration of those who pass on with euphonious humanism. The picture is at times tonally wandering and disordered, its episodic construct sometimes giving way to ostensible incoherence and overwhelmingly instinctive and facile manipulation. Yet as time passes its greater, more perdurable qualities tend to partly supersede and diminish its blemishes and deviances.
Departures is, intriguingly, however, itself a departure from popular Japanese cinematic perceptions. This disconsonantly diametric stance—antipodal and complementary all at once, steeped in Japanese traditions and simultaneously tottering about in search of a highly significant rapprochement with occidentally treasured modernism—nearly necessitates such drastic modifications and alterations to Departures' inflection. Determining how much of this vacillation is more mundanely tied to the demands of Takita's filmmaking—Departures' morbid subject matter and attendant heartache arguably call for audience-softening badinage, jocoseness and even some limited forays into near-slapstick—remains literally recondite. The story is of Daigo Kobayashi, fledgling cellist, turned encoffinner apprentice. (It should be noted that the film's most robust humor is intrinsically tied to the Japanese fear of uncleanliness, chiefly derived in this picture from the corpses with which the protagonist must routinely deal.) Insofar as Departures evidences social impediments, it does not follow through with the strenuous strictures which laced Akira Kurosawa's own socially conscious explorations of bodily and spiritual decrepitude leading to gradational putrefaction of the noumenal (pace Kant) and rectification of the discarnate. In that it too deals with the moribund certainty that follows infirmity and senectitude, Departures most immediately calls to mind Ikiru, though the catholic mien of the picture shrouds the subtextually grimy and complex sociological realism of Kurosawa's oeuvre—but perhaps more apropos would be Drunken Angel with a paternal older man overlooking the addling progression of a young, unsure man.
It is in this regard where Departures makes its most pointed claim as being a film worth seeking out on Father's Day weekend. The film's hero, Daigo (a fairly sensitive, but occasionally quite overbearing Masahiro Motoki), suffers from continual Oedipal longing and disquietude due to his father abandoning him when he was at a tender age. Daigo's employer, a stereotypically crusty, amusingly soft-spoken old man named Ikuei Sasaki (a warmly tender Tsutomo Yamazaki) oversees Diago's budding maturation as a man. In one memorable scene, Diago, after having been humiliated by those for whom he cares once they have learned what he does, and now wishing to quit his job, goes upstairs from the front office of the encoffining establishment, to where Ikuei lives, only to be unwittingly persuaded to not leave by the old man's tale of how he became an encoffiner and embalmer—his dearly departed wife was the first person for whom he plied his newfound trade.
Daigo's peregrination from cellist to encoffiner finds greater artistic resonance through director Takita's compassionate staging of Daigo's physical manipulation of the corpses which are so stigmatized by the salubriously hygienic parameters of Shinto as unclean. As Daigo and Ikuei enact one ritualized passing after another for the deceased, however, it becomes apparent that they are in their own, loving way, appeasing and honoring Kami. Takita's compositional focus, aided greatly by cinematographer Takeshi Hamada, finds Daigo and Ikuei's respective journeys—one ebbing, the other still rising—as parables, not so much demystifying the “casketeering” process, but impeccably detailing it. Avoiding prosaic linkings between the phenomena and the process, Takita and Hamada conspire to create a honeyed placidness out of colors like Japanese water painting. The oriental-occidental cross-cultural conversation has been ongoing for a long time now: each side has commented on each other's redoubtable attributes, whether they be artistic, political or otherwise. Monet's inspiration from Japanese water prints leading to his creation of the water garden, with weeping willows, water lilies, wisteria and bamboo, which further inspired him to create some of his most gorgeous paintings such as the Japanese Bridge and Water Lilies. Viewing Departures, it may be said that Takita has been inspired by Monet, particularly in the transcendental light that accompanies so many of the rooms in which Daigo works. The pictorial communication between European and Asian artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries continues, and cinema has helped to make it only more comprehensive.
The beams of sunlight that slice through rooms and people, the hot, smoking grills and pans on which food is promptly cooked, the golden kerosene lamps, all equally dulcify and anticipate the fiery cremation which awaits those in whom Daigo invests so much time, patience and care. Daigo's musically trained, and expertly dexterous fingers and hands, caress the dead with singular circumspection. The act of beautification is not solely intended to satiate the Kami or the departed, but those who in life held the deceased dear to their heart. Ministerial considerations can only go so far; with a deeply empathizing credulity, one man informs Daigo and his employer that his wife never looked so beautiful in life as she did after they had finished transforming her from a sallow corpse to a ravishing alter-avatar of herself, readying her for the transmigration about which characters repeatedly speak.
Unfortunately, Departures is not satisfied to be a touching tale of acceptance of an ostracized vocation, and excavation of Japan's complicated, tiered social stratas, but by the endmost chapter, Daigo's throes of Oedipal dejection and bitterness are purified in an unnecessary and maudlinly lachrymose denouement. Takita's direction finally slackens in discipline; the score by Joe Hisaishi, often swelling at dramatic points, becomes too distracting for the sake of the imagery it is intended to support. At this point, Departures has departed the track on which it had succeeded, depicting Daigo's debilitating troubles stemming from his father's abandonment as the firing table from which the remainder of the tale emanated. The risk of unwarranted manipulation seems to not deter Takita, however, as he at the very least finds the encircling ardency of feeling to convey something meaningful, if not especially fruitful. Departures is fittingly organic in that way, as it chronicles the nearly agestral-like naturalness of the decomposition of the human body, touched up afterwards. Departures becomes overripe in its concluding passage, but that does not take everything away from its lovelier properties.