I kept seeing this one—a Japanese movie which won the Academy Award for best foreign feature film—in The Quad listings and trying to get to it, but the timing during the day (my usual movie-going time) just wasn’t working. I was so happy when Paul noticed it, too, and suggested we use some sitter time to check it out.
Departures is the story of Daigo Kobayashi, a passionate cellist, with a dream job in an orchestra, who finds himself abruptly out of job—and in huge debt for a very pricey cello-- when the orchestra dissolves.
What do you do when your dream has fizzled and you’ve got to re-group?
You go home, and you look for another job. Daigo and his apparently unflappable wife, Miko, head to Hirano, in northeastern Japan, where Daigo grew up. Daigo has inherited the house he grew up in from his mother, who died while he was abroad some years earlier. (His father abandoned the family when he was a child.)
Daigo sees a job listing for handling “departures” that doesn’t require experience, and, assuming its some sort of job with a travel agency, figures he’ll apply. Turns out that “departures” was a typo. It’s the departed that he’ll have to handle.
The business is all about “casketing,” i.e. a Japanese ritual in which dead bodies are prepared for the casket, and, at the end of the ceremony, placed in the casket. And it pays really well.
Daigo, who has never witnessed a death nor been part of memorializing one, can’t say no. He’s enticed by the money and Sasaki, the endearing curmudgeon who owns the business, and he’s frankly too nice and well intentioned to find a way to back out of the situation. He ends up going along for the ride.
It’s a great ride.
Departures, like Ghosted, is a window into another culture’s approach to death. And it’s an interesting one. On the one hand, the ritual of casketing is truly gorgeous—a reverential process that involves symbolically wiping away the pain accrued during time on earth, dressing the body in burial clothes, and making the person up (if the family requests it), to look their best, before placing them in the casket. All things that happen here, at a mortuary, but behind closed doors.
Here you, and the family, who sit nearby, see it up close. You’d think that a culture that created this lovely ceremony would be better at handling these situations than we are. Nope, at least, not according to the movie. Turns out the Japanese are just as death-leery as Americans. Daigo is too embarrassed to tell his wife what he’s up to. He lets her assume he’s working for a travel agency. (There’s a predictable reveal and accompanying drama over this one.) And he's ostracized by people in the community who disdain what he's doing.
And the grief-stricken families are just as un-done and un-resigned to death as those we know. Each death, each family, brings it’s own assortment of heartbreaking and sometimes funny complications. The beautiful young woman, a suicide, who they discover, in the process of casketing her, is actually a man, leaving the two casketers in a quandary: make “her” up as a woman or man? The fight that breaks out, among the family and friends, over the question of who’s responsible for death of a young girl killed on a motorbike.
We see it all. So do Daigo and Sasaki. And we watch as people struggle to come to terms with their losses. Along the way, there’s a nod to the “ambiguous” ceremony-less losses in life—people, gone but not dead, and dreams, for instance—and how hard it is to wrestle with them, as well.
It’s all very real, and very touching. Ultimately there are many opportunities for one realization: It’s a privilege to be here, walking around, living our lives, and the death of a loved one, and even someone you don’t know well, is an opportunity to honor that fact both for the other person—and for yourself.
I left the movie humming with appreciation, both for the movie and my life.
I had the normal upbringing with regard to movies, which is to say I went occasionally but nobody, including me, made too big a deal out of them. That changed in my mid-twenties, when I lived, for a brief and unhappy year, in Chicago. I knew few people, didn’t have a lot of work, was lonely, and needed to entertain myself. I discovered that I loved going to movies alone. That they left me in a contemplative, introspective state of mind that I really enjoyed.
When I moved to New York and began freelancing, I found that going to movies helped me write. I’d review my notes on a story, go to a movie, come back, sit down and the story—which had nothing at all to do with the movie—would just pour out. Maybe I was letting my subconscious work while the rest of my brain enjoyed itself. Maybe it was that contemplative state of mind I was talking about. Who knows? The only thing I really knew for sure was that it worked.
When I was writing my first book, I often saw a movie every morning as a prelude to the afternoon’s work. That meant I saw A LOT of movies, some great, some awful. You can’t be too picky when you’re seeing movies at that pace. My favorite movie experience during that time was when I went to see “Lord of the Rings.”
I had not read the books. It was long. I hadn’t read any reviews—I almost never read reviews (too many spoilers, and the critics’ views have a way of worming their way into your brain). I wasn’t totally thrilled about it, but I had few other choices. It was lunchtime, and on the way I stopped, on impulse, at Murray’s and got a sesame bagel with whitefish salad. And I picked up my customary enormous diet coke on the way in.
Well. The movie was beautiful—it was shot in New Zealand—and enormously entertaining. It had Ian Mackellan in it (a big plus), and the bagel with whitefish salad and (it almost goes without saying) the diet coke were sublime. And it was a LONG movie. So I really got to relish the experience. It was, in short…perfection. And that, my friends, is how this blog--which is, in essence, a movie lover's diary--got its name.